It was 20 years ago today…

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Amnesia can be wonderful thing, especially in politics. To listen to  John Kennedy, one may think that of course, the teacher pension problem is about poor planning. Then again, that may not be a flaw but a feature. He writes for the West Michigan Policy Forum:

It’s simple math. Today’s vastly underfunded teacher pension systems are not good for our teachers or students. Twenty years ago our state teacher retirement plan was fully funded, but due to poor financial planning assumptions and not meeting the annual funding requirement, there is now a shortfall of least $29 billion.

Here’s where amnesia takes over: twenty years ago the Engler administration raided the teacher pension fund as part of Prop A. Under that same plan, the Engler administration also shifted responsibility for increases in pensions to the local districts. The raid destabilized the funds and the cost shift meant that districts came into fiscal risk while simultaneously losing money to effectively teach their children.

And to spell this out completely: John Engler enjoyed some of his most significant support from the Republican party of W Michigan. This crisis is almost entirely one of their own making.

Finding Trump, Missing Jesus

Sometimes the pain of politics gets us, robs us. One plaintive cry from Facebook

I have been questioning Christianity since Trump took office. A lot of church members supported him (to my complete surprise) and I just couldn’t understand. I stopped going to church and I am now starting to question my faith, which makes me sad. I wonder “am I believing in something for good reasons or am I just following”. At first it just gave me pause for church but now has me questioning my faith. Does anyone have any advice?

Yes the faith map is so discouraging sometimes, especially if you are accustomed to gathering with conservative Christians of the Evangelical variety. So to break on politics means that you also give up a community that has in some sense nurtured you or given you a sense of place. Part of the underlying fear is that if you go to one of those “other” churches you will find an expressed faith that is not as vibrant, the thing that holds you currently with the church.

Spiritual communities give some needed resources in this time. First, there is simply the solace of friendship arising from a common task (not to dis the political, but in politics we tend to think instrumentally, that we are only as good as we give. the best spiritual gatherings have a sort of baked-in acceptance, as you are, where you are.) A second reason to consider a spiritual community is because the critique of this Trumpian time has such spiritual qualities, the turning away from others for the exaltation of self, say. The unwillingness to work for the common good. The shrinkage — the absence! — of compassion. Churches and other spiritual communities have some pretty deep wells that can help here.
And I do hear how alone you are in this. There are others of us out there, and we very much want you to know how embraced you are. Peace.

A Democratic raid on the country club?

Neil Carlson on Facebook points to a Jennifer Rubin column on the possibility that so-called County-Club Republicans may be in play. Carlson goes for the heart of Rubin’s column,

“These voters want a good education system, college tuition that does not break the bank, investment in R&D, a dynamic economy (which requires trade, immigration and U.S. leadership in the world), fiscal sanity and a spirit of sensible compromise. They want the U.S. to be respected in the world and not to bask in the approval of tyrants. They don’t want the government doing everything, but they know we aren’t going back to the pre-New Deal era. They support a safety net but want programs to “work” (meaning, result in fewer impoverished people). These are people who navigate in their daily lives by persuasion and compromise, not bullying and insults. They want, in short, some semblance of civil and effective government and international leadership grounded in American values.”

He then adds a point about pro-life that should not be missed by Democrats.

Got me about pegged; add something about respect for faith and respect for life without rigid dogmatism about how policy must reflect such respect, and you’re very close.

Pro-life and concerned with building the common good: I do miss those folk, but I wonder. As a Dem, I’m not sure I want this group, but not for the political reasons one might imagine. Our nation and neighborhoods get far better when two sides can dialogue and even disagree. A discourse expands the potential set of ideas, defeats groupthink, and builds a broad consensus — a real patriotism.

In the meantime, the dangers of a small nation leadership (Make America Great, indeed!), are such that yes, Dems should pursue this group. Regarding Carlson’s point about pro-life, one of the real tragedies has been the shrinking of the pro-life base so that it becomes an ideological property than a matter of common approach. There is a world of good that could be done. In the meantime, as a Dem, welcome.

Fruit from a Poisonous Tree?

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Charlotte Ellison reacts to a report from Jeff Smith at GRIID:
“DeVosville” coming soon, in a utopian fantasy for hipsters and a nightmare for low income folks being displaced. The prequel: “Heartless Heartside”, the stark new reality.” The sequel: “Wyoming, the new Wild West”.

In certain progressive circles, “DeVos” is all one needs to say in order to condemn. Maybe. Is that the case here?

The plan is actually fairly interesting, albeit with philanthropic (aka DeVos) money driving it. Good socialist that Jeff Smith is, anything smacking of Ada comes with “neolliberalism” etc. But are these the facts on the ground, or something shaped by an ideological lens? I vote for the latter.
Objectively here is your problem: this neighborhood lacks jobs, has one of the highest densities of persistent poverty, and is almost 40 percent rental. Start the question: how does one begin to build a community in that sort of space?
What Rockford has done is assemble a chunk of industrial properties in the heart of this area (much of it, the old Doehler-Jarvis plant). By the documents in Smith’s report, their goal is to site high employment businesses in this region, businesses that would then hire form the neighborhood. That’s pretty much a straight-up good thing. The sorts of businesses imagined (I believe, remembering earlier articles), would be the sort of light manufacturing / low wage sort. Of course, if you are just putting more low-skilled employment in place that’s a dead end. So the extension of the Rockford/Amplify plan is to have skill development as well — I would guess as satellite from GRCC. This sort of pattern is already present immediately to the west, along Buchanan Ave. at the Source.
As to schools. There are three schools in the district: Dickinson (GRPS), Hope Academy (Charter), River City Scholars (Heritage Charter). The DeVos family foundations not only like charters, but have been quite active at Alger Middle. There are precedents for the DeVos engagement, and they have not excluded GRPS — if anything, Smith and company have been upset about the connections between GRPS and Ada.
And then there’s housing. LINC has already put up a number of buildings; hardly hipster heaven (tho’ definitely contemporary in appearance). the realities are that any new construction will need to be subsidized in some manner in order to keep it affordable — this is the complaint about development. There is no indication in the proposal the material that Amplify is aiming to tap the burgeoning downtown crowd, or seek market-rate apartments.
Here, we also need to pay attention to the impact of house-buying in Grand Rapids. Outside investors have bought a significant portion of vacant housing in the city with two consequences: it has driven up the home purchase cost, and in turn it has driven an increase in rates. In this neighborhood (49507), this has been the impact, not that from too many apartments, as is the case on Belknap Hill.
Put these together: economic development, focus on education including career or skill education, and improved housing stock — what does this look like? I would submit that it looks mightily like the holistic approach of Christian missions. On one hand, the memory of unilateral mission does add caution (so too, does the experience with philanthropists in schools, the School Reform movement s part of this) although there is evidence that this project will at least attempt to work with residents. The Chrisitan vibe may also lie at the heart of Smith’s actual concern, with its echoes of the earlier Dutch hegemony in the city. The missional feel I think is actual — neighborhood engagement has been part of Christian work in the city (see Baxter Center, after all, or the neighborhood residences on Black Hill by the Mars Hill church), and the positions for Amplify have been advertised in area evangelical churches, including Ada Bible, the home church for many in the DeVos orbit.
Still given the choice of no development or some what is the alternative? I’m going to vote for a holistic approach.

Right Schooling?

Justin Amash came to town this week, and boldly asserted “something isn’t a right if someone else has to pay for it.” Well, that didn’t sit too well with those in the audience, not least, fellow debate coach, Pam Conley. She pointedly asks
If that is the case how is voting a right?… or the right to a redress of grievances in a court of law, …or trial by jury of your peers, or the right to legal representation if you can’t afford representation? … I have more but EVERY right that requires implementation and/or enforcement comes with price tag. Elections, courts, police, trials, lawyers… none of these are free, all are paid for by taxes, and are by deceleration of the US Constitution or the SCOTUS’s ruling (ie..Miranda rights) rights we as American citizens are insured are “inalienable”.
And since this is the Policy question….  
The question may be put: does education belong to the individual, is it essentially personal in nature? Or is it something of social or communal function, a piece of social infrastructure?
If it is personal, and so a “right” this oddly leads you to Betsy DeVos. If a right, then the mode of delivery is secondary. Indeed, as a right could education be subject to 1A requirements? Does right entail vouchers?
As infrastructure — this seems to be the way the Northwest Ordinance treats, viz. as part of development. Horace Mann (Letter No. 5, if I recall) sees education as building the community and its economic life. Infrastructure does not necessarily mean that funding can vary (ok, Pothole Michigan   ) but it does express a commitment and moreover, it shifts the argument from the moral (Right) to that of justice, of a common good for all.
What complicates the matter is the question of special education. A rights model does seem to be the easier model for this funding. The infrastructure argument falters somewhat (although Mann did promote education for those with these needs — education is something a community does for the community was the reasoning). My own thought is that a 14A approach to the infrastructure framing gives us the better outcome, since it would necessarily involve metrics (Rights as moral considerations often falter on the metric side).

How to build better schools

Randal Jelks pointed to an interesting article from the New York Times on New York’s elite schools, highlighting the terribly small admission of African Americans. 14. The number is shocking. As he notes, the problem is not simply there on Manhattan, but also here on the banks of the Grand. Do our magnet schools, specifically City, suffer from the same disease? Or more accurately, do they function as a distraction from the point. As he notes:

(The magnet schools have) never been about the intellectual development of Black and Brown children who now make over 69% of the school district. Now mind you need middle class parents of all stripes in the GRPS, but not at the expense of majority the population. Too much excuse making in my opinion and reinforcement of race and class segregation with white folk being the power brokers

Perhaps. This does seem to  to pit the middle class against the needs by race. This may miss the issues of class. As Jelks alludes to, numerous studies not that it is poverty, not race which correlates with achievement. Moreover, achievement for low income students rises when they have the chance to be economically integrated; middle class engagement by parents and stakeholders is critical for the overall health of the schools.

Add to these observations the conditions at hand in our city. Of the total school age population in the city, Grand Rapids Public Schools gets slightly more than half. The rest are found in charters, schools of choice transfers, and to a limited extent the parochial. Of the share of the students 72% qualify for student lunch. Note GRPS is ~ 31% white, the census school age population is roughly 35% white. So the question of uplift is less racial than economic in nature; a broader economic base gives more possibility for lifting up more students. Again, integration

And finally, there are graduation statistics released yesterday. GRPS has made decided gains in the past five years, particularly among its black and latino populations, and especially with the men. Further, the graduation rates for  Innovation Central High School and Grand Rapids University Prep are both in the 90+% range, and both have more than 80% minority enrollment. These schools succeed because of stakeholder engagement, and there is simply no question that we need more of that. In short, this is not the district of 10 years ago, or even five.

Walking Away (but keeping the memory)


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Matthew Loftus links to Peter Beinart’s article, “Breaking Faith” and asks

What if being secular makes you more tolerant towards things like gay marriage or pot legalization, but makes you more intolerant towards other groups? If you thought the Religious Right was bad, wait ’til you see the Post-Religious Right:

For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.”

One is tempted to reference those who “have the form of religion…” This cultural faith, of course, is always there. And when it’s connected with one party, then the other side is likely to reject the entire apparatus — good riddance! 

On both sides, the secularists think that religious faith is primarily a matter of culture, and so a matter of politics. Yet the practice of the religious community points in another direction (as does its own moderation). Faith always lies askew of the culture, and so the church provides an alternate affirmative good of community. the shape of this community is not built on the internal values of that community (what it does in gathering), but on its appeal to the transcendent. This “otherness”, this faith gives us permission to walk away from ourselves, our natural “tribe.” Otherness gives a breadth, a counter-cultural narrative, that is not only theological, but experiential. This aching need for connectives is all around us. Old guys long for it and often die for lack of it. Likewise there was a terrific article a couple weeks ago on the Epidemic of Gay Loneliness on the Huffington Post — read subtly, there was still this longing to connect (the folks at Spiritual Friendship have it right). We thirst.

Partisanship, this divide, feeds off of a lack of inner life. When all we are left with is our externals, than it is easy to appeal to the stuff of the tribe.