27 May 2015

New York K-12 Spending: Education pigs feed at the trough

Stephen Kershnar
New York School Budgets: Are voters on drugs?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 25, 2015

This past week New York voters approved of the budgets for 99% of the state’s 669 school districts. This beat last year’s 98% passage rate. This is a problem.      

A little context is in order. Writing in Syracuse.com, Sarah Moses reports that in 2015 the taxpayers in the school districts paid on average (median) approximately $23,000 per student. That is not a misprint. Note this only applies to school districts where taxpayers get to vote.

New York spends more money per student than any other state. According to a 2015 study by the New York state Policy Office, Education Team, and the Division of Budget, the state spends 84% more than the national average and roughly $8,000 more per pupil per year (2012-2013 figures). This is not just a matter of its just outspending Southern states. It vastly outspent neighboring states, including New Jersey (13% more), Connecticut (20% more), and Massachusetts (38% more). Note that these states are richer in that they have significantly higher per capita and per household incomes.  

Fredonia and Dunkirk are no exceptions. In 2015-2016, Fredonia will spend $21,423 per student, which is an impressive 6.5% increase in per pupil expenditure in a single year. Dunkirk is only slightly better, spending $20,580 per student and with a 2% increase in per pupil spending.

You might think taxpayers are getting a lot for their money. You’d be wrong. The New York State Department of Education found that in 2014, roughly 64% of grades 3-8 students were not proficient in math and 69% were not proficient in English. Again, the numbers are not misprints. New York is ranked 32nd or worse in 4th and 8th grade math and English scores (bottom 40% of its class). In 2012-2013, roughly a quarter of New York’s high school students failed to graduate high school in four years, which resulted in New York being ranked 33rd in the country. Worse, only 38% of graduating seniors have scores indicating that they are ready for college and this likely overestimates overall college readiness.  

Not only is there little accountability at the district level, there is little accountability for teachers. In 2013-2014, roughly 96% of teachers were rated effective and a mere 0.7% (sadly, not a misprint) were rated ineffective. Side note: teachers can be rated neither effective nor ineffective. Does anyone seriously think that only 0.7% of workers in any industry are ineffective, especially in a government-run industry? Does this jive with your experience at work?

This result is made even more suspicious when one realizes that education majors have, on average, among the lowest SAT scores in college and that intelligence (which tends to correlate with SATs) is a fairly good predictor of job performance. I should note that many teachers did not major in education.

These sorts of figures should anger teachers as much as the rest of us. There are many highly effective and hard-working teachers and it should piss them off when their good works are reversed by ineffective and unaccountable peers.    

It’s clear that that taxpayers are paying a lot for a little. Public school apologists will quickly respond that even good teachers can’t make up for low intelligence, poor parenting, or economic and cultural deprivation. They’ll quickly add that far too much of the money goes to disabled students and this is mandated by law. They’ll likely point out that the money isn’t going toward teachers, pointing out that, according to National Center for Education Statistics, from 1970-2012, non-teaching staff have increased vastly more than the increase in students or teaching staff. This might all be true, I suspect much of it is, yet this doesn’t explain why New York students are doing worse than over half the other states or why it can’t spend at the level of Connecticut or Massachusetts.

My main problem with the level of education spending isn’t just the poor results, it’s the crushing tax burden it requires. Even if New York were to have the top ranked schools and excellent accountability, the taxes needed to pay for this level of spending are simply too much. People have projects in life. They want to get married, have children, invest in their businesses, and go on vacation. Requiring they take a few thousand that could be earmarked for these things and hand them over to the schools is unreasonable even if the schools were operating at peak efficiency. It is unreasonable for the same reason that forcing citizens to spend a few hours every week laboring at the school would be unreasonable. Many people would rather spend their time and energy elsewhere and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For some people, their tax burden is on par with their mortgage. For some retirees, the taxes painfully cut into their fixed income. For the vast majority, it’s an obnoxious imposition. The fact that parents of school age children seem to incredibly ungrateful for the amount of hours their neighbors had to work to pay the roughly $23,000 a year for their children to go to a public school just adds insult to injury.

One way to see that the spending is unreasonable is to ask whether parents of school age children would choose to spend $20,000 or more a year on their child’s education with all the bells and whistles (for example, an array of sports teams, gym, art, music, theater, nurses, school psychologists, and guidance counselors) or would they opt for a less expensive package, perhaps one that focused on the core of a successful education (for example, math, English, and history)? Almost undoubtedly they would opt for the less expensive package and if parents don’t think the extra money is worth it, neither should taxpayers.   

Taxpayers should stop giving school districts a blank check. An obvious first step would be to cut spending down to the level of neighboring states.

13 May 2015

Pam Geller and Charlie Hebdo rock

Stephen Kershnar
Islam: False and Destructive
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 10, 2015

Recent events have made it luminously clear that Islam is a savage religion.

On May 3rd, two Muslim gunmen were shot and killed while trying to attack a Prophet Muhammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. The cartoon competition was sponsored by Pam Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, and was held in honor of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

Earlier this year, Muslim gunmen forced their way in the headquarters of a magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 12 people, including five cartoonists, for Muhammed cartoons. The gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) and “the Prophet is avenged.” In 2004, another Muslim expressed his displeasure at Theo Van Gogh’s movie, which criticized Muslim treatment of women, by shooting Van Gogh and then trying to cut off his head. In 1988, the Supreme Leader of Iran issued a credible death threat against novelist Salman Rushdie because he didn’t like Rushdie’s book.

The May 3rd attack is small potatoes compared to other Muslim attacks in the U.S. included the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers (3 dead 264 wounded), 2009 Fort Hood Shooting (13 dead, more than 30 wounded, “Allahu akbar” yelled), 9-11 (2996 dead), 1993 World Trade Center Bombing (6 dead and more than a 1,000 injured), and numerous other failed attempts. Of course, this is par for the course as the iconic slaughter of Israeli Olympic athletes was later replaced with bloody attacks on a Bali nightclub, Moscow Theater, London Subway, Madrid Train, U.S Embassies in Kenya and Libya, and so on.  

A religion is best viewed as the practices that comprise it. The independence of religious practices from the religion’s text and history can be seen in the way in which we would judge Hasidim and Mormons. Hasidic Jews’ lifestyles have a loose connection to the Old Testament and to how ancient Jews lived. The same is true for Mormons who have doctrines, practices, and a prophet that would be barely recognizable to Jesus-era Christians. If we were judging Hasidic Judaism or Mormonism, we would judge them by what they say and do, not by what their sacred texts say or their self-serving propaganda.

Judged by their practices, the Muslim religion is a juggernaut destroying freedom and lives as it rolls on. Most Muslim countries have little respect for freedom of speech, religion, association, or other features of the general right to be left alone. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim world is unfriendly to capitalism.

On the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, only three minor Muslim countries are listed as economically free or mostly free (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar). Far too many Muslim people suffer from bloody civil wars in some Muslim countries and harsh government crackdowns in others.     

A significant percentage of Muslim countries have no democracy or democracy only within the confines of religious control. Consider, for example, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The Muslim majority countries that are democratic (for example, Turkey) have done so only because they keep a boot on the neck of the Muslim religion.

The Muslim treatment is women is a breathtaking disgrace with, depending on the country, hindrances to education, mandatory covering of the body, forced marriage, rules restricting driving and being alone with unrelated men, and genital mutilation.  

Not only is the Muslim religion destructive, it’s false. Not only do Muslims have to defend theism, the case for which is at best weak, they also have to defend the notion that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were prophets, also dubious. They have to further provide evidence that Muhammed (with his long history of war and bloodletting) was a prophet and that the Koran is the word of God. Given a plausible reading of the Koran, they likely have to go still further and show that God actually wants apostates destroyed, Jews and Christians subjugated and made to pay a special tax, women’s travel, dress, and education sharply restricted, and gays prevented from having sex. The chance of all of these doctrines (theism, prophets, Koran, and harsh policies) being true is infinitesimally small. Geller’s and Charlie Hebdo’s courageous satire shines a light on this false-and-destructive way of life. 

Nor will these things change soon. Writing in The Huffington Post, Alon Ben-Meir points out that in the Arab world, the majority of intellectuals operate within the tight confines of the Muslim religion (for example, clerics and imams) and thus a robust internal challenge to religious ideas and oppression will likely not be coming anytime soon. This a far cry from the Western intellectual tradition, which is and was studded with thinkers who together demolished the case for authoritarian governments and coerced religion and did so centuries ago. 

Publicly acknowledging that Islam is a savage religion will inform policy decisions. First, this will lead us to be skeptical about allowing large numbers of Muslim immigrants into the U.S. as we don’t want to import the same problems that plague France. This is a shame given that many Muslims are incredibly smart, disciplined, and good people, but, unfortunately for them, their destructive brethren are too costly and we’re not good at filtering them out.      

Second, there should be serious political penalties for pouring American blood and treasure into the Middle East. Bush and Obama and anyone who supported their foreign adventurism (for example, Hillary Clinton and John McCain) should be kicked to the curb. Consider how much better off we’d be if we avoided the Bushs’ Iraq and Afghanistan wars and avoided Obama’s  wars on Libya and ISIS, his incessant drone strikes across the Muslim world, and his meddling in Egypt and Syria.  

Third, there should be a ferocious defense of the right of free speech. The attacks on Pam Geller for her cartoon contests about Muhammed are disgusting because the Muslim religion is false and destructive and satire makes this brilliantly clear.

Pam Geller and Charlie Hebdo, you make us proud.

29 April 2015

Do Passover and Easter Make Sense?

Stephen Kershnar
How to View Religious Holidays
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 26, 2015

The religious holidays earlier this month, Passover and Easter, raise interesting issues: Do the holidays’ central stories make sense and, if they do not, then how should we view them?

Consider Passover. Passover is an Exodus-inspired holiday in which Jewish people celebrate God’s having liberated them from slavery in Ancient Egypt. In the Passover story, God freed Jews from slavery by inflicting ten plagues on ancient Egyptians before their leader, the pharaoh, agreed to let the Israelites go. The tenth plague involved the angel of death (or, perhaps, God himself) killing the Egyptians’ first-born sons. The Israelites avoided having their sons killed by putting the blood of a slaughtered lamb on their doors so that the angel of death knew to pass over their houses. During the plagues, the pharaoh would have relented and freed the Israelites, so God hardened the pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t relent. God did this to show his immense power. Even after the plagues, the pharaoh’s army pursued the Israelites. God parted the Red Sea and after the Israelites passed through he then closed it, drowning the Egyptian Army.

The story makes no sense, at least if God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. First, consider God’s hardening of pharaoh’s heart. Why would he do that? It led to immense suffering. Surely, he might have communicated his greatness in ways that didn’t involve bringing widespread suffering and death to the Egyptian people. Given that God allowed himself to manipulate pharaoh’s mind, he could have just as easily given the pharaoh a love of freedom or the Israelites and thus created a beautiful path by which Israelites escaped bondage.

Second, why would God kill the Egyptian’s first-born sons? They were innocents and it is a standard principle of morality that it is wrong to kill innocent people. This is especially true when the innocents are women and children. It is odd to see Jews joyously celebrating the death of Egyptian children, albeit as a means to their freedom.

Third, God if insisted on killing (see the tenth plague), he could have killed the Egyptian soldiers rather than first-born sons. The soldiers were going to die anyway and the angel of death was already in the Egyptians’ homes. There was nothing to be gained by adding to the carnage. 

Fourth, God could have made the Egyptian soldiers and their horses lame rather than drowning them. This would have ended their pursuit without horrible drownings.  

Easter also makes little sense. It celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. According the Bible, the Romans crucified him and he lay dead and buried for two days. On the third day, God raised him from the dead. Many Christians celebrate Easter by receiving the Eucharist. Some denominations (for example, Catholicism) hold that the Eucharist is literally the body and blood of Christ. Other Christian denominations hold that it is merely symbolic.

Atonement, closely related to the resurrection, lies at the heart of Christianity. Atonement theory asserts that the suffering and death of Jesus explains why God forgives or pardons people for their sins. The Bible repeatedly asserts this. Yet atonement is a bizarre notion. A standard principle of morality is that it is wrong to punish one person for what another did. Yet Christian doctrine holds that people are forgiven by their sins because Jesus was punished. This is like punishing a mother of a rapist for what her son did and, after doing so, deciding that the rapist need not be punished.

The Eucharist makes even less sense as all of something - Jesus’ body - cannot be in two different locations (for example, Dunkirk and Hartford). 

Little noticed about the holidays is that Judaism and Christianity contradict one another. The former holds that the messiah has not yet come and that God is a unified individual. It also forbids people to be worshiped as it considered idolatry. Thus, Jews hold that Jesus is a false messiah and, hence, Christianity is false.            

If the Passover or Easter story is literally true, then it is clear that our understanding of God and morality is seriously flawed. That is, if it is okay for God to harden a leader’s heart in order to more completely crush his people, kill innocent boys, and allow one person to be tortured so that billions of other people don’t get the punishment they deserve, then our understanding of morality or God is so inadequate as to be worthless. If, instead, the stories make no sense, this is likely because the Passover and Easter stories have symbolic value, but are not literally true. 

If the Passover and Easter stories are merely symbolically valuable, then you might wonder why we should take them seriously. A lot of symbolic events have emotional meaning to us and are part of our identities, but it doesn’t follow that they should guide our daily actions or that people who master them (for example, rabbis and priests) have any expertise in moral issues such as marriage, divorce, in vitro fertilization, abortion, premarital sex, and so on. Like historians who are experts on Roman mythology, their symbolic and historical insight is valuable, but therein ends their expertise.

Also, one might wonder what else is symbolic. For example, one might wonder whether the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ instructions are merely shared symbols of an imagined past.  

Still, the holidays are wonderful times, filled with family, warmth, and a lot of good food. One might wonder what’s to be gained by calling into question the symbolic stories at the center of these joyous holidays even if they make no sense. Perhaps we have to trade off truth and rationality for emotionally meaningful symbolism. Perhaps.