Tilting at Windmills

July/August 2011 Layer cake… The Department of Housing and Unbelievable Delays… God help the squeaky wheel

By Charles Peters

You have probably read about the Republican efforts to make it difficult for poor Democrats to vote. In order to register to vote, the people of Kansas, for example, are now required to prove they are citizens with a birth certificate or other document. Then when they go to the polls, they must produce a government-issued photo ID. These requirements are supposedly aimed at preventing fraud. But, as an editorial in the New York Times points out, “Kansas has had only one prosecution for voter fraud in the last six years,” and concludes, “because of that vast threat to democracy, an estimated 620,000 Kansas residents who lack a government ID now stand to lose their right to vote.”

You go to war with the war you have, not the war you want

The Pentagon is organized to plan a war, not fight a war, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently observed. This is gospel truth, and it is why billions of dollars have been wasted on weapons systems designed for wars that aren’t happening instead of the wars we have actually been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why simple things like body armor and IED protection were so long neglected.

Stalled on stalls

In May the Federal Aviation Administration issued proposed rules requiring adequate crew training in how to handle engine stalls. The catch is—or, rather, the catches are—first, that they come more than two years after the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo that cost fifty lives because the pilots did not know how to deal with a stall; and second, that they are only “proposed,” with the final rule, according to Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, “still likely years away from taking effect.”

The reason is that the FAA is allowing the airlines time to comment. Now for what is totally infuriating: the FAA had already issued a version of the proposed rules in 2009, and the new proposed rules were announced only after the airlines had two years to comment and complain.

To sleep, perchance to crash a jetliner

I believe that most federal employees are generously compensated, taking into account their salaries plus pension and health benefits. But some crucial fieldworkers are underpaid. As we recently pointed out, this was certainly the case with oil rig inspectors in the former Minerals Management Agency. Now as we read about sleepy air traffic controllers in the press, we learn that the Bush administration cut their starting salary down to $30,000 in 2006 in some parts of the country. Controllers were moonlighting to supplement their income.

To accommodate underpaid controllers who needed time to work their second jobs and to promote long weekends for other controllers who were adequately paid, the FAA allowed them to set their schedule as follows: two evening shifts, followed by only eight hours off before a pair of day shifts, and then another quick turnaround leading to a midnight shift, giving the controller very long weekends that lasted from early Friday morning till late Monday afternoon.

It also was a schedule almost guaranteed to produce drowsiness in the control room. Now salaries are being raised—but the schedule is only being slightly amended, meaning, of course, that the hazard of sleepiness continues, which in turn means that the FAA has to use extra controllers to make sure someone is awake.

Prestige for rent

Magazines as respected as the Atlantic, in an understandable search for fiscal survival, have drifted into potentially dangerous relationships with corporate America. The problem is illustrated by recent issues of the New Republic and the New Yorker. After the New Republic had cosponsored a conference with the nuclear power industry, the inside front cover of its May 26th issue contained an ad for that industry featuring a photograph of the New Republic’s editor, implying that the magazine endorsed nuclear power. And after the New Yorker had cosponsored a conference with the University of Phoenix, that institution ran a four-page ad in the magazine flaunting the relationship. I was shocked. The University of Phoenix has been shown to be a business that finances itself with loans given to students it has enrolled without regard to their qualifications and who often prove unable to repay the loans, leaving the federal government, which had guaranteed them, holding the bag. It is well known that the admissions counselors for the university were paid on the basis of the number of students enrolled, without regard to the merits of the student.

Mainely wrong

The Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is removing the name of Frances Perkins from a state facility. For those too young to be offended, let me explain: Perkins, a Maine native who became the first woman to be named to a president’s cabinet, was a great secretary of labor in the 1930s and ’40s. She also wrote one of the most perceptive books about her boss, Franklin Roosevelt, called The Roosevelt I Knew.

The grass is greener—dangerously so

Of all the problems in the federal government, the one that worries me the most is the increasing number of public servants who look forward to cashing in by selling their expertise to corporations or lobbying firms who will give them cushy jobs when they leave government service. Far too often, their anticipation of this outcome leads them to curry favor from their future employers while they are still in government service. A recent example is Meredith Atwell Baker, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, who “criticized the FCC’s review of Comcast’s joint venture with NBC/Universal for taking too long,” reports Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post, “and voted in favor of the merger.”

In June, she got her reward: a nice job with Comcast.

The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that its former staff members file a statement if they plan to represent a client before the commission within two years of leaving. The Project on Government Oversight, headed by Danielle Brian, one of Washington’s savviest critics, has found that between 2006 and 2010, 219 former SEC employees filed 789 such statements. They were so eager to cash in that they couldn’t wait two years.


  • Andrew Clarke on July 11, 2011 12:15 PM:

    Dear Mr. Peters,

    I am most disappointed by your now regular maligning of teachers’ unions in recent editions of ‘Tilting At Windmills’. You generally decry a lack of effective (and nondescript) “reform” to “improve education”, with teacher unions identified as a primary culprit, while giving outsiders like Bill Gates a free pass (someone who without name recognition or immense wealth would be dismissed for lack of experience and insight in education). You also regularly cite your perceived dysfunction at the tenure system, and its assumed outcome of “keeping bad teachers in the classroom”.

    First, if your publication wishes to catalogue and evaluate the range of challenges presently affecting pre-collegiate public education, and an associated range of viable solutions, then devote the time and research to it - preferably inclusive of those who actually spend many hours engaged with students in the classroom, from across the nation. Vapid comments that cast blame on unions are not useful. It is these very union members who are central to educating our pre-adult citizens in an increasingly toxic environment (see the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania... the list grows). Your rhetoric lends itself to no substantive solutions, and provides ammunition to the right wing ideologues who seek to destroy what’s left of organized labor in this nation. Teachers - who don’t seek the profession for wealth - should be the very last people targeted in any lamentation of shortcomings in public education. Insofar as there exist “bad” teachers, I welcome more evidentiary analysis & reporting: in what way are these teachers “bad”? How is such performance measured & evaluated? On what criteria and by whom? How often? What complicating factors make their performance subject to nuanced externalities, that may be difficult to measure or account for? Most importantly, just how many “bad teachers” are there? What proportional impact do they have on adversely holding back improved educational outcomes (relative to other variables, including ever tighter educational budgets)?

    When you speak of the nebulous and nonspecific force of “bad teachers” without context, data, or evidence, you are providing aid and comfort to the ideological enemies of public education, further doing a major disservice to all the “good” and “decent” teachers who positively impact hundreds of students throughout the school year - including, yes, your own son.

    Second, and more specifically, there seems to be a great misunderstanding of what exactly tenure is, in the field of public education. It is not something in place to “protect bad teachers”, and render them unable to be terminated. It is, rather, a system of due process, to ensure that terminations are valid and with cause, rather than potentially capricious or retaliatory. That’s one part of a union’s basic mission - protect its membership against the vagaries of a possibly adversarial administration. And due process strikes me as something all Americans are receptive toward - why not economically, as well as legally? Both involve fundamental security of person and livelihood.

    You further cite the example of “bad” teachers “absorbing too much of the education with their higher salaries, and when budget cuts are necessary, requiring that talented young instructors be fired instead of their less competent elders”. You couldn’t have gift-wrapped it better for the conservative base. Aside from the repeated point that you cite no quantitative proportionality of just how big an impact these purported “bad teachers” have in the overall discussion, your assumption is also one-sided. Consider the reciprocal argument: in a system void of tenure or seniority, how about instances of budget cuts putting pressure on school districts to terminate the more experienced, more competent, highly qualified good teachers, simply to realize budget savings? Do

  • jhand on August 03, 2011 7:35 PM:

    Although I share Mr. Peters' concern abut the ability of such large organizations as the NEA (of which I am a member), to work toward meaningful, positive change in public education, I was most impressed with Mr. Clarke's long, strong, rebuttal of an attitude that pervades the halls of Congress and the White House, as well as the chairs at the many Starbucks in D.C. Mr. Clarke's argument on evidence-free teacher bashing needs no support, but I would like to share my take on teacher tenure as it applies to Texas, a non-union state.
    Tenure in public primary and secondary education in Texas is not a sinecure. It essentially means that the teacher is no longer on probation. Probation means that you can be terminated for any reason or, worse, for no reason. In this system, there is no appeal, and probation usually lasts for three years. There is no guarantee that a teacher who has passed his or her probationary period will be able to keep his or her job, but there have been state laws that guaranteed due process. This meant that, if a teacher was considered (in Mr. Peters' terms) a "bad teacher," that teacher could be offered a growth plan and eventually terminated--IF the supervisor documented the weakness or failings of the "tenured" teacher, and IF the documents convince either a superintendent, a school board, or a hearing officer. So tenure is not really anything more than a guarantee of a job as long as you are performing that job, and you can lose it for a cause--as long as the cause is documented and convincing. That's how it was in Texas.
    Our legislature has passed financing laws that leave our public schools with a multi-billion shortfall over the next two years. Anticipating layoffs, the lege also passed a laws that allow a school district to declare a financial emergency and then lay off any teacher regardless of seniority. This is called a Reduction in Force (RIF), and the new law allows school boards the right to set their own criteria for RIFs. Declaring a RIF effectively eliminates due process for "tenured" teachers. I doubt that the Teach for America crew is taking bus reservations for their recruits to move to Texas and start a lifetime career in teaching in these conditions .
    I am not so sure that "tenure" in Texas, as it has previously existed, is not all that much different from "tenure" in union states. When teachers in union states have fought and won dismissal cases, they often win because of lack of due diligence on the part of the supervisor--who either did not intervene correctly or did not correctly document the reasons for dismissal. I would leave that argument to someone more familiar with the union states than I am.
    I hope that you, Mr. Peters, can see Mr. Clarke's point, that "bad teachers" are hardly the primary --or even secondary--problem in public education. Blaming teachers will make people feel better, but won't even begin to improve education.