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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since February 2012

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Stealing From The Mouth of Public Education to Feed the Prison Industrial Complex

February 27, 2012 ·

States across the US are excising billions of dollars from their education budgets as if 22% of the population isn’t functionally illiterate. 

Mass cction against prisons displacing education in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Brant Ward, SF Chronicle.

According to the NAAL standards of the National Center for Education Statistics 68 million people are reading below basic levels. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “nearly all states are spending less money (on education) than they spent in 2008 (after inflation), even though the cost of providing services will be higher.” On top of cutting 4 billion dollars from their budget, Texas has also eliminated state funding for pre-K programs that serve around 100,000 mostly at-risk children. North Carolina has cut nearly a half billion dollars from K-12 education resulting in an 80 percent loss for textbook funds and a 5 percent cut in support positions like guidance counselors and social workers among numerous other cuts. Decisions like these leave little reason to wonder why both those states are facing 27% drop out rates.

Closing public schools has so become the rage that the state of California has even produced a best practices guide on how to close and make them fit for turn-around. Why not promote a ‘best practices guide for keeping a school going’ instead? Why make these decisions when we know that a lack of education decreases access to quality (and legitimate) employment opportunities, increases the likelihood of encounters with the criminal (in)justice system, negatively impacts health outcomes, and altogether limits one’s ability to determine her or his own future?

What we’re witnessing is a systemic recasting of education priorities that gives official structure and permanence to a preexisting underclass comprised of largely criminalized poor black and brown people. Certainly having a prominent underclass isn’t new to the US as it has quite the track record of denying fill-in-the-blank people fill-in-the-blank rights. But the material outcomes of this shift are as communally and economically devastating as were the outcomes of the Black Codes in the 1800s and subsequent Jim Crow laws that persisted until 1965; both of which were legal, with implementation that varied from state to state and still impacts communities today.

The collusion between this government and private interests are not new either. It is not a coincidence that at the same time neighborhoods with high incidences of black people are being destabilized and displaced through fast track urban-land grabs, or gentrification, by developers empowered by local municipalities states are divesting from the public school infrastructure serving them. This is an insidious process that forces the hand of communities. Public education is something more than a right, a liberty, or a privilege. It is a need. One as basic and inarguable as the land we must walk on, food we must eat, water we must drink, and air we must breathe to live. For absolutely nothing will or can be done in human society without it. So who would want to send their children to schools that have police presence and metal detectors in place of books? Or to overcrowded schools with teacher to student ratios of 1 to 30 and little to no extra curricular activities or wrap-around services? These are the material consequences of divestment from public schools. Who wants to send their children to schools in neighborhoods that are mini-police states? If it can be helped, no one.

Charter schools by definition aren’t the real problem. They have been practical and creative solutions to educating children when needs go unmet. Forming alternative centers of education has been a norm practiced in communities across the country since the 1800s. But what we have today is something very different. Charters now elbow out established public schools in part or completely. Corporations like Wells Fargo, BOA, JP Morgan,and Wal-Mart, all major investors in private prisons and players in corporate education reform, have extraordinary influence on education policy at the state and federal levels.

Parents, students, teachers, and other relevant stakeholders are manipulated into making a false choice, drawing a line in the sand where the wrong group of people is on the opposing side. Whether for public schools or charters, both sides want the same outcomes - creative, critical thinking students who are equipped to participate fully in their community and society at large. Instead of charters continuing to operate as creative workarounds, especially for communities in crisis, sharing in the resources for the public, they’ve been co-opted. Now taking an antagonistic role towards traditional public schools.

While these turf wars are being fought, the children who don’t make it into the tier one schools or roll sevens in the charter lotteries are left behind and to their own devices in these poorly administered, under resourced and overcrowded schools.

Forty-six percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated are without a high school diploma and the skills to compete in an ever-shrinking job market.  This means roughly a million people won’t ever get a shot at what should already be low-hanging fruit—a low-waged, skill-lite, benefit-deplete, socially unrewarding job with a work environment that’s likely to be mentally and spiritually stifling.

Little guesswork is needed around what will happen to these unskilled and undereducated millions who have been failed by these schools that continue to be eroded. It is the prisons that will have them; for these youth are the preferred meat of the criminal (in)justice system.

This is why we can have record closings of public schools throughout the country, and at the same time witness the rise of corporate backed charter schools and private prisons. The message to the people being that a select few will be educated and the rest will be locked in struggle against their own commoditization. This is why we must continue to fight.

The Lineup: Week of Feb. 27-March 4, 2012

February 27, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Scott Williams explains why Congress should preserve funding that makes it safer to ride bicycles and John Feffer predicts that many political candidates will resort to anti-Islamic rhetoric between now and Election Day. You can also read my take on how the 2012 presidential race is shaping up on our blog. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Running Against Islam / John Feffer
    Politicians indulge in anti-Islamic sentiment with near impunity.
  2. Soaking the Customer / Wenonah Hauter
    Private companies are aggressively trying to expand their share of the water service market, and too often we're getting a raw deal.
  3. Shifting Gears / Scott Williams
    Just 1.5 percent of federal transportation funds support bicycling and walking projects.
  4. Playing Politics with the Courts / Marge Baker
    Senate Republicans are blocking votes on judicial nominees, including uncontroversial ones.
  5. Party of God / Donald Kaul
    You wouldn't think it would take Him four shots to pick a winner.
  6. Stealing State Parks / Jim Hightower
    Top politicos in many states are closing many of their parks, slashing hours and services at others, or simply handing over the public's asset to profiteering corporations.
  7. Costly Labor Scam / William A. Collins
    Savvy employers play one state against another when they plan new facilities.
  8. Islamophobic Contest / Khalil Bendib

Islamophobic Contest, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Somebody vs. Someone Else vs. Obama

February 24, 2012 ·

Phew. Those 20 debates felt like they'd never end. Now that they're over, however, the Republican Party isn't particularly close to selecting its presidential nominee.

Given the distractions caused by the candidates' many gaffes and their stunning assertions, it's hard to notice that the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination may become the most unpredictable for either major party since the GOP settled on Barry Goldwater in 1964. And most voters probably don't realize that it looks like three heavily funded candidates will be on the ballot in November.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have each won at least one primary. Ron Paul came close to winning Maine's non-binding caucus. So, it's no longer OK, as Santorum might say, to treat Romney as the frontrunner. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Googled is ahead of Romney in at least one national poll and essentially tied with him in another.

Most voters probably presume that Romney will ultimately claim the nomination. That's why the formerly moderate former Massachusetts governor won the reactionary American Conservative Union's straw poll at CPAC. Meanwhile, national opinion polls indicate that Obama would beat Romney or Santorum in a two-way contest.

One growing possibility is a brokered convention, where the delegates themselves would pick a different nominee. America hasn't had one since 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson clinched the Democratic nomination primarily because he gave a great speech. If by August polls still point to a loss for the GOP frontrunner in November, this could happen at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Brokering would make political junkies, who get bored by conventions that are really just coronations, very pleased.

If this happens, the party's brass would choose a new candidate they deem capable of beating Obama. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would be the most popular options, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University. But none of them seems any more viable than Romney or Santorum, so don't be surprised if someone else gets on the ballot. But since the same poll found that more Republican and Republican-leaning voters oppose the brokered option than support it, that kind of maneuver could prove costly for the party.

Meanwhile, those Super PACs unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling are spending unprecedented sums of money, which will ensure that campaign 2012 remains volatile until Election Day. Plus, thanks to a wave of vote-suppressing legislative gimmickry across the country, it's quite likely that Obama will lose out on votes that he would otherwise win.

Then there's Americans Elect, an initiative bankrolled by big hedge-fund money. It's spending more than $22 million to get its own yet-to-be-named candidate on the ballot across the nation. This undemocratic scheme is canvassing voters via the Internet but reserving the right to pick its own winner if the moneybags behind it reject the people's choice.

Despite not being a real political party, Americans Elect is already on the ballot in 14 states. Only time will tell who will run on that ticket and whether this candidate will help or hinder Barack Obama. Or the Republican nominee. Whoever that's going to be.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

A Step Forward for Guestworkers in the United States

February 23, 2012 ·

The Department of Labor recently said that it would take new steps to improve protections for at least one category of vulnerable workers, workers in the temporary work permit (H-2B) program. It has announced new rules for the H-2B program that are a significant step for the protection of U.S. workers and guestworkers who work alongside each other in many industries.

Break the Chain Campaign has worked with exploited household workers since 1997, providing direct social and legal services to survivors of human trafficking and severe exploitation in the DC metro area. Many of these workers arrived on temporary work visas in the B-1, A3, and G5 programs. We have witnessed severe exploitation and even human trafficking that we believe could have been prevented or ameliorated with stronger protections and oversight of the temporary visa programs. In our research and work with other advocacy groups, we have learned that the number of cases of trafficking and severe exploitation of men and women on guestworker visas is growing, and we are energized by this news.

Workers in the the H-2B program do important and vital work for our country, for example helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, yet they are often invisible and left unprotected against retaliation and abuse. We are energized by the news from the Department of Labor earlier this month that they are taking steps to improve protections for at least one category of vulnerable workers.

Daniel Castellanos, a founding member of the National Guestworker Alliance, whose Congressional testimony was cited by the Department of Labor in support of the new rules, describes the victory this way:

“For too long, guestworkers have been lured to the U.S. with false promises of an American Dream, and instead faced deep debt and exploitation. Because these rules contain real worker protections and expand our right to organize, we can win fair wages and working conditions for all workers.”

Key components of the new rules include:

  • The new rules eliminate debt servitude among guestworkers by prohibiting employers and recruiters from charging recruitment fees. Currently, guestworkers enter the United States with exorbitant debt from recruitment fees and travel costs. This allows employers to use threats of firing to repress workplace complaints, knowing that workers would face deportation into crushing debt they cannot repay back home.
  • The new rules prohibit employers and recruiters from retaliating against workers who file a complaint, exercise their rights, or help other workers to do so. This ensures that when employers or recruiters do violate the program rules, U.S. workers and guestworkers have the same rights to speak up and organize to protect themselves.
  • The new rules require employers to provide at least 75% of the hours promised to guestworkers in their contracts. This ensures employers do not over-recruit guestworkers to build a captive, desperate work force that employers can use to undercut U.S. workers.
  • The new rules bar temporary staffing agencies and job contractors except in narrow circumstances. Temporary staffing agencies and the employers they provide workers to must both have a temporary or seasonal need. They must both agree to be jointly responsible and follow H-2B program rules. This helps to ensure employers do not use the guestworker program to turn permanent jobs into temporary work.

Break the Chain Campaign applauds this important step by Labor Secretary Solis and the Department of Labor to protect worker rights. We are excited to continue a partnership with the National Guestworker Alliance to help spread awareness of these new protections and to ensure that they are implemented across the United States in a way that protects U.S. workers and wages by stopping employers from exploiting guestworkers to undercut the local labor force. We believe that preventative worker protections like these new rules will prevent some of the most severe forms of exploitation that we have seen over the years in the anti-trafficking field.

What If Somebody Told You That al-Assad Didn't Kill Enough People in Syria?

February 23, 2012 ·

Syria’s strategic location and alliance with Iran means its internal violence could evolve from the regional to a larger stage. The West’s intervention formula, starting with a UN Security Council resolution condemning the regime, its killing of civilians and demanding President Bashar al-Assad step down, got derailed by Russian and Chinese vetoes.

The UN vote coincided with Syria’s attack on Homs, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold like neighboring Hama, where in 1982 Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, had wiped out 10,000 (Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent says 20,000) of his armed foes. The Brotherhood had rebelled against Assad’s ruling Alawite clique (a Shiite sect).

At a party in Damascus, in 2004, I asked a Syrian businessman to assess Hafez al-Assad’s ruthlessness.

“He didn’t kill enough of them.” He didn’t smile.

Did my face show my feeling of horror? Nearby party guests, members of Syria’s commercial elite nodded in agreement. These people had kids in Ivy League schools and wives who shopped in New York.

“How do you rule a country of Sunnis, Shias, Druze, Christians, and in 1982 even Jews?” another businessman asked. “Persuade religious fanatics to disarm and tolerate different beliefs? English settlers and black slaves made the United States. America had immense land to diffuse conflict – and still you had bloody civil war.

“Syria lived for Centuries under the Ottoman Empire [16th Century until 1920]! The League of Nations chose France to govern Syria The French divided city and country people, destroyed homes of suspected insurgents and punished entire villages for the actions of one man. And they bombed cities — even Damascus.”

I reflected on the businessmen’s words after US, French and British UN Ambassadors righteous perorations. All of them had bombed civilians.

I had asked my host about Bashar’s regime. He elbowed me to a corner. “Corrupt, undemocratic, clumsy,” He whispered. “But you can do business with them. Bush (referring to W) crazy democracy talk only encourages the fanatics who want power.”

A doctor, married to one of the businessman, wearing a in a low-cut dress, confronted me. “You poll people in Damascus and Aleppo. I would bet the majority wants to keep Assad. With him women wear comfortable clothes, get education, become doctors and have rights. Those Sunni fanatics in Hama want Syria to return to earlier Centuries, strip women of rights, deport Christians and probably kill the minority Alawites. What happened in Iran would look moderate compared to what would happen here.” (Conversation while filming SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE, 2004)

Eight years later, in January 2012, a YouGov Siraj poll showed 55% of Syrians wanted Assad to remain in power. But the majority was motivated by fear of civil war, not fondness for his regime, said the poll, funded by the Qatar Foundation.

Ironically, Qatar’s Emir had “just called for Arab troops to intervene” in Syria. Steele thought it was a “pity” that the poll was “ignored” by almost all western media outlets whose governments demanded Assad resign. The poll also showed the majority wanted free elections and more rights.

The US media’s context-free reporting offers simplified (distorted) presentations of Syria and Assad as representing another Libya and Qaddafi. The good guys (peaceful citizen protestors who hate dictatorship, joined by noble army deserters) fight the bad guys (the power-hungry President Assad and his army).

Headlines scream about very real daily violence occurring in several Syrian cities. Most news reports have attributed the killing of peaceful citizens almost exclusively to government forces.  But in January Arab League monitors, from mostly Sunni countries eager to destroy the Syrian-Iran Alliance, saw armed “protesters” doing some of the Syria killing, un-reported by most US media.

“In Homs and Dera‘a, the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks. In certain situations, Government forces responded to attacks against their personnel with force. The observers noted that some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.”

“In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed … the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil… A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed.”

The Mission also “noted that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded.”

The Mission also witnessed armed attacks against “Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the Government to respond with further violence. In the end, innocent citizens pay the price for those actions with life and limb.”

Peaceful protestors? UN Ambassador Susan Rice excluded these passages when she denounced Russia’s “willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant [Assad].” Secretary of State Clinton called Russia’s veto “a travesty.” Washington has used the veto 83 times, mostly on resolutions condemning Israeli actions. Now that Al-Qaeda supports the anti-Assad movement does US “disgust” got hurled at both sides?

In 2111, Saudi troops invaded Bahrain and killed unarmed protestors. US officials uttered no “disgust” sounds. Disgust applies to disobedient states. So, end the hypocrisy.

The West should not use “humanitarian” pretexts to intervene in Syrian affairs. But together with Russia and China they should stop outside arms shipments from entering Syria, and urge Assad to end government-backed violence.

Syria needs truly free elections and Syrians need to have basic rights. These include ending corruption — Assad cronies collect the money. Sincere parties – including Washington and Moscow — should welcome a chance to let peace and democracy actually work in an Arab country.

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