Saturday, November 28, 2015

End-Of-The Year Charitable Giving & the Loss of the Local Economy

The Myth of the Local Economy (or “Brother, can you spare a dime?”)

 Been begging lately?  I have.

When I seek donations and contributions for a small, local animal shelter, I don’t call it begging, but that’s what is it. 

Hard work, begging – especially in this cold and especially in this economy.  Some shelters are experiencing up to 400% increases in the amount of dogs and cats left abandoned in foreclosed homes or given up by owners who have lost their jobs. Sometimes their poor pets are just tied to the front door when we get there.  

But what really makes finding money for food and medical treatment for animals such an uphill climb is the changed nature of the economic landscape in which we all now live.

The Middle Class is struggling to survive after the Great Recession. 

And if you are non-white, it’s been even more difficult.  Hispanics have lost nearly 37% of purchasing power as contrasted to whites since 1980. 
And African-American families?  They’ve lost nearly 200% of purchasing power in wages (from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability). 

There’s not much disposable income around – especially to help the voiceless & homeless. 

The business geography has changed too. 

“Too big to fail” an economic disaster also means many were too small to survive. 

At the shelter, we used to be able to depend on the many local shops and businesses to provide a few dollars or an item suitable for a fund raising auction or raffle. 

Not so anymore.  Not so local anymore. 

What used to be trickle down from our local mom-and-pop shops is no more.  Instead, it has become decidedly trickle up.

“Hi, I’m from Peoples Animal Welfare Society in Tinley Park.  We’re trying to solicit assistance in any way from local businesses like yours to help us pay for the thousands of abandoned animals we vet, feed, care for, and adopt out each year. Would your business, here in our town, be willing to help?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to go through corporate for that.”

Corporate will be in Idaho, Minneapolis, California, or somewhere else usually far away. 

And corporate, even in a closer place like Chicago, usually has a program of giving on a national not local scale.  It’s part of the boardroom budgeting process; FY16 is already in the hopper.  And, honestly, the last target (pun intended) for their obligatory corporate giving would be a small, local shelter. 

You see, giving on a national or international scale provides advertising, which is of value to corporations – it is revenue generating.  Even a thank you from a charity on a corporate level (like United Way) can assure a full page of company icons and solicitous appreciation in a newspaper like our Chicago Tribune.  In addition, in the lower corner it will read “With thanks to our media partner Chicago Tribune.”  See, more feel-good advertising.

Gregory Marcus
Of course you won’t believe who makes this full page spread in the enormous “thank you” and collection of icons in pages of the Tribune.  Here’s a partial list of the 24 corporate Samaritans fro last holiday season, and I’ll just highlight the companies with membership in the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of ChicagoNorthern Trust, Illinois Tool Works, AT&T, UPS, Deloitte, Exelon, Bank of America, Ernst & Young, Illinois Blue Cross and Blue Shield, KPMG, PWC, William Blair, Wells Fargo, GE, Nicor, Allstate, Kelloggs, Sargent and Lundy, HSBC, Harris Associates, Pepsico, Aon, Walgreens, and US Bank.  They all appreciate the spirit of giving on the mammoth scale to national and international charities because beyond the good citizen-type appearance…well, it pays back.  Helping people is profitable (except when they desire to bargain collectively).  Go to a movie this holiday season, and you'll see CEO Gregory Marcus pushing United Way as well as popcorn.  

Brian Gallagher
And this corporate giving and getting is a two way street, you know.  The CEO of United Way is Brian Gallagher, whose 2010 reported annual salary is $375,000, “plus so many numerous expense benefits it’s hard to keep track as to what it is all worth, including a fully paid lifetime membership to 2 golf courses (1 in Canada and 1 in the USA), 2 luxury vehicles, a yacht club membership, 3 major company gold credit cards for his personal expenses…and so on.  This equates to about $0.51 per dollar of income [going] to charity causes” 

In the case of corporations, the amount of bang for the buck isn’t nearly as important as the public fawning and media attention that comes with it. 

And let’s not forget the connections or the possibility of playing golf this summer, let’s say in Canada? “Hello, Brian, maybe I can fly up on your company plane?”

Abandoned animals?  How about abandoned local communities?   

Hey, have a great holiday season.  Gotta go untie some dogs.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Rep. Kenneth Dunkin: Self-Anointed Strike Breaker?

"But…I did it for you…"
Rep. Ken Dunkin and Self-Anointed Strike Breakers

It was in 1803 the first persons to cross over a picket line of strikers were called black-leggers, probably in reference to the shoe polish that was integral to the Wisconsin bootmakers’ strike.  Of course, sadly, in past as well as current America, some historians propose the term to be possibly racist in nature.

The term “scab” was first used in England, of all places.  Europeans then and now seldom employed strikebreakers (or scabs) to continue operations; that was and is  more likely an action on the part of American factory owners and magnates. 

In the early 1850’s, the term SCAB was likewise a reference to “blacklegs,” for the latter indicated a severe infectious disease among British cattle that rendered the poor animals with necrotic skin and abscesses and, of course, oozing scabs.  Not a term of endearment if it were part of your job description.

And this somehow brings me to this last week’s dramatic kerfuffle in Springfield.

To look over Representative Ken Dunkin’s (5th District) explanation of his no-vote on SB570 – to overturn the Governor’s changes to the Child Care Assistance Program to his constituency is a script Capra-esque.

“That’s why I made a promise to fight Gov. Rauner’s child care cuts.  That’s why I spent countless hours on calls and meetings with the governor and his administration to demand these cuts be rolled back.  And that’s why I delivered for my constituents and reversed these cuts.”

Energetic and earnest young politician rolls up his sleeves, stomps by the smoke-filled rooms of the strategists and insiders, and flings open the doors of the hardheaded Governor to have an honest face-to-face quarrel in order to save the kids in his district and entire state.  Very Jimmy Stewart.

Here’s what happened.

Governor Bruce Rauner, using his administrative emergency powers to curtail or diminish human services to save money, had earlier cut the threshold for Child Care Assistance from 185% of the federal poverty level for families in Illinois to 50% of the federal poverty level.

Explanation:  Illinois’ median income for families is higher than most states in the nation; therefore, our historical threshold for various human services has always hovered well beyond the federal level. 

The Census Bureau on Median Income by Family Size shows Illinois families of three at nearly  $72,500.  (By the way, that’s between $5000 and $10,000 more than our neighboring states which are held as models for Illinois. )

The 2015 federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,090. 

So, it makes sense that Governors in the past and the Illinois General Assembly have provided an increase in the onset for assistance in the state. 

Prior to Governor Rauner’s lowering the threshold to 50% of the federal level, Illinois’ threshold for Child Care Assistance (family of 3 or more) was 185% of the federal poverty level…or…$37,166. 

A mother with two children making $36,000 would be eligible. 

Rauner’s earlier “emergency action” would have reduced that level to 50%.    In other words, that same mother and children would need make less than $10,056 to qualify for assistance.  Quite a devastating distinction.

Those many state resources devoted to caring for impoverished children and families were quick to react. 

“The unprecedented use of the Administration’s emergency rulemaking authority to restrict eligibility for child care assistance has resulted in the denial of 90 percent of applicants who would have otherwise been eligible for child care services through CCAP. That means approximately 20,000 children have been rejected from the program since the drastic restrictions took effect July 1.”

The Speaker and the Illinois Senate were likewise politically punctual, and SB570 was crafted to strike down the Governor’s draconian changes, reinstate the original thresholds, and prevent any current or future governor from making such alterations again without permission of the General Assembly.

 As you already know, the bill needed 71 votes in the House, but got only 70 as Representative Kenneth Dunkin once again avoided voting at all.

According to Rep. Dunkin, “Let me be very clear about what would have happened without a deal in place – what would have happened if the House or Senate passed SB570.  Childcare income eligibility would have stayed at 50 percent of the federal poverty level for at least another 60 days as we waited for the governor to veto the bill…The folks who wanted prolonged suffering to help their political agenda won’t be very happy with me.  But I don’t work for them.  I work for you.” (SJR)

Well, not all of you.  Rep. Dunkin’s sidebar with Rauner and his team resulted in a partial return to the original Child Care Assistance threshold of 185%.  Instead, it now will be 167%.  That will be nearly a $5000 drop in annual income in order to qualify. 

From $37,166 to $32,545.  In other words, a drop of nearly 5% in population numbers of families’ earnings.

According to the latest figures on the Illinois Child Care report, nearly 163.500 children require funding from Child Care Assistance.  That constitutes a probable change of nearly 5% less in children provided Child Care Assistance. 
Nearly 8000 children will be dropped from Child care Assistance after Rep. Durkin’s sidebar with Rauner. 

The collective group of Democrats in the General Assembly would have stripped Rauner of his ability to make such draconian cuts, rolled back the thresholds, and doubled down on the Republican attempt to use once again the marginalized as the scapegoats for the Democrats’ not coming to heel.

This and the likely blowback by senior members of his own Republican party gave the CEO Governor reason to change his original cuts to 50% of federal poverty level for assistance.

What to do?  Find a patsy?

In the Mohawk Valley Formula, a 1930's plan for strikebreaking and undermining collective bargaining usually credited to members of the Rand family, one important tenet is to find suitable puppets or "loyal" workers who can be co-opted to break solidarity.  Whatever it takes. 

But Rep. Dunkin argues he works for you. And he argues that without his timely intervention, all might have been lost.

A man of service, or a simply serviceable man?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Teacher Shortages on the Way

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Unsettling observations arrived in an email from Illinois TRS Annuitant Trustee Bob Lyons in the last few days.  I am not sure if you received it or not – but it was one small spate in a torrential confluence of disturbing educational news for our state and for the nation overall.

In Illinois, young and aspiring teachers face not only the mountainous ascent of learning to teach in today’s data-driven assessment environment but also to withstand a losing fiscal future forcing them to pay more into an underfunded system and later be punished after retiring for meeting their Tier II requirements.

 If you’re not a teacher or if you were lucky enough to avoid being hired as an Illinois educator after January 1, 2011, Tier II was the result of a bill passed quickly by the Illinois General Assembly to alleviate the coming wrath of credit rating companies by showing the state could muster together $billions of future money. 

On the backs of future employees.

The bill – PA 96-0889 – provides no compounded cost-of-living benefits for retirees, increases age for retirement qualifications, punishes severely those who do retire earlier despite completed service, requires personal contributions to retirement beyond what is called for in social security, and caps the educator’s final payout at approximately $109,000 regardless of final salary – which ignores the 75% offered Tier I. 

In very short order, we citizens of Illinois will face the issue of whether the state of Illinois meets federal standards in meeting its “safe haven” for federal employer tax benefits after shorting the state employees. 

In other words, Illinois makes a significantly lesser payment to the state workers’ retirement system than it would need to with Social Security because it meets – or used to – federal thresholds in eventual pension obligations; on the other hand, now Tier II employees pay more and get less than the expected levels.

The General Assembly shirked its first duty to fund the pensions, then put it on someone else, and now may be called into question – and they are we. 

According to Bob Lyons, this may be a factor (among others) in a disturbing trend in Illinois among the pool of potential and able educators.

Wednesday we learned from our actuaries based on their experience review that they assume that only 37% of our 25 year old teachers will retire from teaching in our state.  It would be expected that only a couple percent will die or be disabled before they can retire, so the great majority that will leave will either quit all together, be dismissed, or transfer to another state. About 63% will never see a monthly retirement check.” 

This is a 28% increase in the usual number of nearly half of all starting teachers leaving before the first five years – before Tier II.

 Mr. Lyons ends his note by lamenting, “In Illinois today we can only expect a little more than one-third of our new teachers will have a full career in education in our state.  That is more than sad, it is a travesty.”

Bob is spot on; indeed, his observations identify a problem extending beyond the state of Illinois.

While Indiana may post billboards on the highways asking companies to come to Indiana if the are “Illinoyed,” they also are posting for anyone in our state or elsewhere to come fill their desperately expanding teacher shortage.  A decade of their own Turnaround Agenda has not helped the dynamic of education in our neighboring state much at all.  In fact, there was a nearly 50% drop in educators with educational licenses renewing in the last four years.  Also, nearly a 20% decline in new teachers coming in during the same period. 

In a recent article in the Washington Post, education columnist Valerie Strauss warned of a significant across-the-nation shortage of able teachers.  Arizona is worried about the state’s potential to “ensure economic prosperity for its citizens and create the workforce of tomorrow.”  New York, Illinois, Nevada, California, and many more less-populated states face shortages generally or in specific disciplines..

And, while the educational workforces in Illinois and other states face the national/federal legislations which have wrought a combination of under-resourced public schools, a preferential treatment for development of private or charter school alternatives, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods based on testing assessments, an exponential increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy – the state of Illinois has added Tier II to make being an educator just that much more punishing a profession.

Mr. Lyons referred to the chicanery of such a “travesty,” and he would be right.  Tier II is one of the greatest flim-flams created by a sitting group of lawyers in Springfield. 

On the other hand, it is a much more personal and individual tragedy for those who meant to give themselves in a chance of making a difference, of touching young people, of channeling their strengths to greater gifts, which would in turn make a difference for all of us. 

A recent post by an educator who had herself had quite enough of this New Metric World reminded me of how fortunate I was for the mentoring, the collegiality, the fellowship of my own professional life before the advent of NCLB and RTTP. 
“So why did I leave? Clearly, it means a lot to me to be a teacher. People assume that maybe the kids were too much, or the parents were a lot, or the pay was too low, or any number of reasons that have been trivialized on memes and complained about on Facebook. Taking a hiatus from teaching didn’t have anything to do with any of those reasons.
“Children are the best part of teaching; they are hilarious, spirited, adventuresome, silly, loving and grateful! Teaching a child something and when you see them put it all together to take ownership of the learning, is incredible. It’s more than just seeing they understand how to add fractions, it’s witnessing the confidence they gain from knowing they CAN do it. They learn something about themselves, that is what’s important.”
My own teaching alma mater has recently dropped from the 19 to 24 in the Tribune’s state of Illinois ACT preparedness tally.  Pity the poor teachers who slaved away at Mastery Concepts and didn’t meet requirements there.   And yet, when I look over the lists of top schools it is always the same story, isn’t it?  If it’s not the Winnetka’s, or Hinsdale’s, or the Western Springs’ that I would love to afford to live in, it’s the magnates or Payton Academy’s I’d love to send my kids to (or be able to afford to gift a $million(s) to get him or her in).  Economics matters. Doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, Arne Duncan is on his way home.  Sweet Home Chicago. 
Having finished his stint as Education Secretary and power-forward for the President, he was described by Obama as the man who has done “more to bring our education system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else.”  If you do not remember, Duncan succeeded Ron Huberman in Chicago and was appointed head of CPS by Richard Daley, after he failed in saving a lower-performing school and re-opening it with an investment banker as a charter school. 
The President cajoled that Arne was not fast enough to be a player on his pick-up games; more importantly, he was not really ever qualified to be a leader in education.  Anyone who questioned his close adoration of corporate testing was considered a “white suburban soccer mom.”  Those who struggled to navigate the byzantine experimental methodologies of Pearson Testing Corporation were considered without “the grit” necessary to succeed. 
On the national level, the National Education Association called for and received a vote of no confidence for Duncan, and the American Federation of Teachers called for his own dismissal if his plans did not indicate any improvements in the years 2015-12015.  
Secretary Duncan will return to Chicago where his children attend private school. But the Secretary can be assured he has indeed made a difference.
The solitary reason that I chose to leave teaching has to do with the politicized environment of education. People may wonder what politics have to do with teaching, and the answer is everything. When policies are made, the impacts come into our lives and change them drastically. Over the past few years, there has been widespread “educational reform.”  These reforms have increased the importance of spreadsheets, columns of data, evaluations by inexperienced observers, and the accounting of data in every teacher’s life. The focus has gone away from people; students, parents, teachers, staff, volunteers, and onto data. The most important elements of teaching cannot be quantified onto a spreadsheet and put into a power point. When data is given importance above all else, time and resources are directed as such. (Elona Schreiner)
Elona Schreiner writes about her decision to leave the profession on a very personal and painful level.   “It has been years, YEARS, since I was in a building inservice that was about connecting with kids, communicating with parents, designing meaningful anti-bullying lessons, incorporating literature into math lessons or any topic other than data collection, data presentation, data comparison, state testing and teacher evaluations.”
Diane Ravitch, former assistant of secretary of education perceives a deeper and longer lasting issue:  “This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51% live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education. This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.
“It will take years to recover from the damage that Arne Duncan's policies have inflicted on public education. He exceeded the authority of his office to promote a failed agenda, one that had no evidence behind it. The next president and the next Secretary of Education will have an enormous job to do to restore our nation's public education system from the damage done by Race to the Top. We need leadership that believes in the joy of learning and in equality of educational opportunity. We have not had either for 15 years.”
The other evening I had the pleasure of listening to David Sedaris as he explained how he had tried to enlighten people of Europe or other continents understand what is happening politically in America.  “Who is this Donald Trump guy and will he be President?” they had asked him in Sweden.  Sedaris had replied that Trump was so cartoonish he’d “likely run with a VP choice of the Hamburglar.”  Then, he was faced with the dilemma of trying to explain who or what the Hamburglar was or is. 
It was funny, but so far in the pathetic presidential television debates no one has asked the question of education and the questionable corporate influence on children to any front-runners.  Clinton?  Carson? Rubio? Sanders?
Who would Ravitch trust?
And, often, I worry that the current parents of children in schools adhering to this brave new faith in common core and testing – even one big test – don’t remember what they’re individual children are losing.

It’s future lives that are being burgled.
For the teachers?  Their futures are being rived by Tier II and minimized by uniformity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Is Rauner the Trib's Hurricane Katrina???

Is Rauner the Trib’s Hurricane Katrina?

Kristen McQueary, the Tribune editorialist who recently wished she could conjure another Hurricane Katrina to solve the public school crisis in Chicago, has now selectively chosen her unique version of the history of pension debt in Illinois to denounce Madigan’s and the Democratic Party’s resistance to Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda.
"How Illinois Democrats hoodwinked the middle class." (10/23/15)

According to McQueary, it was and continues to be all things Democratic Party that pushed the people of Illinois into this over-$100 billion unfunded liability in pension debt.

“Remember the next time Democrats in this state claim to be the party protecting the middle class.  They’re not telling the truth.”  (Sic - dependent clause)

The Democratic Party did this?

Sorry, Kristin, but we all are to blame for this one, which is why the Illinois Supreme Court in a unanimous decision warned that we are and will continue to be on the hook for what we’ve done – Republican and Democrat.

Even if it comes to selling assets like the Thompson Center, which would be appropriate (see below).

As Eric Madiar, recent Chief Legal Counsel for the Illinois Senate, reminds us, we are all to blame: “According to a report from the General Assembly study of 2009, we have a state fiscal system that is so poorly designed that it failed to generate sufficient revenue growth both to maintain service levels from one year to the next and to cover the state’s actuarially required contributions.” 

Mr. Madiar’s perception includes both sides of the aisle, unlike McQueary’s.   And his legal acumen reminds us all that not much has changed over nearly 35 years.  What was a 40% unfunded liability in 1970 is now 42%. 

And, while McQueary criticizes that the Democrats were responsible for reneging on the maligned “ramp” written into law by Republican Governor Jim Edgar, she conveniently forgets Republican Governor Jim Thompson’s earlier decision to reduce payments to the annual pension costs to only 60% during his incumbency; using the savings to build roads and provide services for which he later applauded himself as a politician who never raised taxes.

IN TRUTH, Thompson's mishandling of the pension payments nearly doubled the debt and generated the need for Edgar's "ramp."

Nevertheless, we all drove to work on roads paid for by public employees' future money.  And public transportation.  And services.

No, we all – Republican and Democrat – are culpable for the Everest of debt we owe to those we promised to pay, even though you give momentary kudos to Madigan: “To his credit, Madigan finally got serious about pension reform and in 2013 passed a bill that would have stabilized the system.” 

“The courts struck it down though.”

Actually, in case you haven’t read the unanimous Supreme Court decision, the court did more than strike it down.  The Justices clearly reprimanded the General Assembly – Republican and Democrat – for considering avoiding a contractual obligation by making the injured party pay for it.  

And McQueary tosses in the silly argument that “Democrat-controlled state government in 2006 also allowed union lobbyists to join the pension system.  Be a substitute teacher for one day, and boom! You, too, can join the Teachers Retirement System…” 

Really? We all agree that this kind of less-than-artful dodge is not fiscally palatable, but a partisan reason for our total fiscal mess?   Aren’t we reaching here?

After that, McQeary goes after promises not kept to the Middle Class in Illinois – progressive taxation, minimum wage issues, property tax issues. 

How about clean air?  Global warming? 

Eric Madiar warns us that the biggest contributor to the $97 billion owed to the state retirement funds are the various Illinois governments that did not contribute enough. 

Various? That’s all of us – regardless of political affiliation.

McQueary’s visible theme: do not trust the Democrats who argue that Rauner threatens the middle class with his battle against collective bargaining. Although the current budget impasse will continue to be painful, it is a necessary palliative to making the state work well.  

McQueary’s underlying theme (leitmotif):  We need a political Hurricane Katrina (Rauner) to make everything all better.

I'm afraid we all bear the responsibility now: for the past errors and our current situation.

Don’t you love the Tribune? 

Thanks, Bruce.