Monday, October 25, 2010

The Tea Party War On Publicly Funded Media

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, has introduced legislation which would end taxpayer funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which operates National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. The alleged impetus for this is NPR's firing of Juan Williams for his comments on The O'Reilly Factor. In so doing, DeMint joins a veritable "Who's Who" of tea party stars.

This strikes an odd parallel with Governor Christie's plan to de-fund New Jersey Network, New Jersey's public broadcaster. New Jersey Network is a public broadcast network owned by the State of New Jersey. It was originally formed because New Jersey, sandwiched between the media markets of Philadelphia and New York City, did not have any local network with Jersey-centric programming.

Christie's alleged motivations are budgetary and operational. However, it was NJN News that disclosed then U.S. Attorney Christie’s secret loan to Assiatant U.S. Attorney Michele Brown during the 2009 gubernatorial election. The fate of NJN remains to be seen.

Since I don't believe in coincidences, I have to believe that the tea party wants to escalate the Republican war on the "liberal" media be eliminating publicly funded broadcasting. Maybe they don't want anyone in the media smart enough to ask Sarah Palin embarrassing questions. Because she really CAN see Russia from her house.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MIchelle Rhee Will Not Be Newark's Next Superintendent

OK, I admit it, I was wrong. Michelle Rhee will not be coming to Newark as the new superintendent. She may, however, become the State's new Education Commissioner -- but probably not.

The unofficial "official" story is that Rhee does not want to come to New Jersey for family reasons -- her husband, Kevin Johnson, is the mayor of Sacramento, CA. Something else is in play here, clearly, as it is nonsensical to assert that D.C. was not too far from Sacramento but Newark and Trenton are. My gut tells me that Ms. Rhee wants to be the only superstar in town, and that sharing the stage with Chris Christie and Cory Booker is not optimal in her view.

So now we wait to see who Booker and Christie tap for the highest profile superintendent gig in the nation, and who Christie gets to sit on the Commissioner hotseat formerly belonging to Bret Schundler.

UPDATE -- The Wall Street Journal reports that Ms. Rhee is engaged to the mayor of Sacramento, not married -- so my dismissal of the "family time" discussion above doesn't actually hold water. The Journal also reports that Governor Christie says he never offered Ms. Rhee a job, despite reports to the contrary in the national press.

At this point, this whole story reminds me of 6 year olds playing soccer. You know there has to be a ball in there somewhere, because everyone's kicking at something, but clearly no one has a grasp on the game.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Wall Street Journal Says Liberals Killed The ARC Tunnel

According to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, "Chris Christie sure has a knack" for shocking the political class on behalf of taxpayers. Christie struck a blow for taxpayers by cancelling the ARC Tunnel because of cost overruns. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was "stunned."

States the Journal:

"The [ARC] tunnel flap is a microcosm of the crowding out of public works caused by liberal governance around the country. In New York State, bridges like the Tappan Zee over the Hudson River are in desperate need of repair . . . The 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles needs repair and earthquake retrofitting, but Sacramento is busted."

First of all, New York had a Republican governor from 1995 to 2007, and the mayor of New York City before independent Mike Bloomberg was Rudy Giuliani. And California has had Republican governors since 1991. So how can this be a liberal phenomenon?

It's the public employee unions, of course. The public employee unions have a stranglehold on state government, and are sucking the transportation infrastructure repair money out of the states in the form of pensions and health benefits and wage increases. See, it's public employee unions against taxpayers again -- that's the underlying meaning.

Second of all, the taxpayers whose property values will rise as a result of the ARC Tunnel are not being well served by the Governor. The taxpayers who pay for road maintenance are not being well served by the Governor, who is doing nothing to get cars off of the road. The taxpayers who breathe the air are not being served, either.

Third of all, Chris Christe cancelled the ARC tunnel to pull the press out of the room where Bret Schundler was throwing the Governor under the bus. Basically, Christie panicked and killed a deal with the NJEA that he knew about because he did not like the press he was getting. Then, when he was about the get more bad press about his previous panic, Christie panicked again and prematurely pulled the plug on the ARC Tunnel. And somehow that's a model of good choices in government.

It seems Chris Christie can't pass gas without the Wall Street Journal finding the Governor refreshing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Michelle Rhee Officially Looking For A Job

As anticipated, Michelle Rhee has resigned as D.C. Chancellor of Schools. Rhee backed incumbent mayoral candidate Adrian Fenty in a Democratic primary largely seen as a referendum on Rhee's educational reforms. Fenty lost to Vincent Gray, who intends to pursue more incremental reforms than those adopted by Ms. Rhee -- e.g., no more mass teacher firings, no more mass school closures.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page cited Ms. Rhee's departure as an "Education Reform Setback," and noted the fact "[t]hat one of the nation's most talented school reformers was forced out does not bode well for students, or speak well of the man likely to become D.C.'s next mayor."

But I say, "Fear not, WSJ." Michelle Rhee is the most famous education reformer in all the land, and after Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar gift to the Newark School System -- announced on the Obama-friendly Oprah Winfrey Show, no less -- Newark is the most famous school district in the world in need of reform. Surely, destiny will not keep these two apart, especially since Chris Christie and Cory Booker are ardent fans of Ms. Rhee's.

In the movie version, I want Meg Ryan to play Ms. Rhee and Tom Hanks to play Newark. And they can meet at the end of the movie on top of the Prudential Center.

The Midtown Direct Effect

The Wall Street Journal reports that certain New Jersey communities have seen housing prices recover faster than in other communities. Houses in good condition in bedroom communities with good public schools and short commutes to Manhattan are seeing housing prices rebound. Apparently, the Wall Street recovery is fueling the housing market boomlet.

Jeffrey Otteau of Otteau Valuation Group, a New Jersey appraisal firm, says that New Jersey towns with short, direct train rides to Manhattan outperformed the rest of the State during the first half of 2010. Says Otteau, "We have seen the effects of the Manhattan rebound in the market we describe as Midtown Direct," a corridor with direct commutes to Manhattan of 35 minutes or less.

I hope someone flags this information to the Christie advisors reviewing the ARC Tunnel. That project would create a new Midtown Direct corridor and increase property values -- it would create wealth.

I also hope someone flags this information to the Governor himself the next tome he discusses pulling money out of suburban school districts to send to private, parochial and charter schools. Good public school districts add to home value -- they create wealth.

I had a lot of time to ponder this information last night during my 2.5 hour commute (normally 35 minutes. Aging Amtrak infrastructure cannot handle the volume of traffic our economy requires. Doing nothing is not an option -- either we act affirmatively to improve the infrasrtucture or we react when that infrasrtucture crumbles beneath our feet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Where's PETA When You Need Them?

I know this is picky, but why is the Governor belittling pet sterilization?

The Governor has been saying that the legislature has been wasting its time on bills such as a pet sterilization bill rather than working on the Governor's tool kit. Speaking as someone who has taken in shelter animals and strays, there is nothing frivolous about the humane treatment of animals. And, quite frankly, I don't trust people who aren't kind to animals.

Man, this Governor has a tin ear.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bret Schundler Gets To Say The Obvious

Although it came as no surprise, it is still worth noting Bret Schundler's confirmation that Chris Christie killed Schundler's deal with the NJEA, which would have brought $400 million to the State, merely because Christie did not want to make peace with the union.

And it's worth noting that the decision to provide annual cost information different from the requested information in the State's Race To The Top application was not an oversight, not a careless error, but instead a conscious decision based on a political calculation.

This information may seem lost in the noise of the ARC Tunnel collapse today, but in the future elections Chris Christie plans to run in, this information will speak loudly about how idealogues function. Future elections won't be run on the premise that there are 2 classes of people, public employees and the taxpayers who pay for them.

Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now?

Congratulations to Michael Aron, senior political correspondent at NJN. With the Governor's cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project, Mr. Aron is ready to conclude that Chris Christie is making decisions with national office in mind. According to Mr. Aron, Mr. Christie wants to run in 2016 as the Republican who cancelled the largest public works project in the nation on grounds of fiscal responsibility.

Why 2016? Because the Governor has gone out of his way to make it clear that he is not running in 2012. He may be able to explain away a Vice Presidential bid in 2012, but not a presidential bid.

But here's the thing. 2016 is a political lifetime away. Hell, 2006 was the year the Democrats swept into Washington, and 2010 is the year they get swept out (although I am not convinced that Democrats will lose the House -- I will be surprised if it happens).

In 2016, the economy will be back on track, people will be back to work. And the lack of adequate public transportation infrastructure will probably be seen as a bad thing. And the ARC tunnel will not be 2 years away from completion, if it ever gets started at all. My money says that in 2016 the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel will be seen as penny wise and pound foolish, an act of political cowardice and a failure to invest in New Jersey.

Such is the fate of idealogical demagogues. They are creatures of their times, and as they build track records of accomplishments they prove themselves of limited appeal.

For example, in 2004 the top issues were terrorism and the war in Iraq; swing voters were focused on "values." In 2008, candidate's support for the war in Iraq was a big litmus test. In 2004, you weren't a viable candidate unless you supported the war; in 2008 support for the war was a detriment.

Maybe this all speaks to where Chris Christie expects New Jersey to be in 2016. Apparently, he's not planning on a robust economic recovery anytime soon; apparently, he's planning for 6 more years of recession.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Children Are New Jersey's Future Profit Centers

Last week the Governor announced his school reform agenda. He wants merit pay for teachers, and he wants student test scores to count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation (as it is in Chancellor Rhee’s D.C. schools). And he wants changes in tenure, a statewide data system than tracks student achievement, a teacher evaluation task force, the ability to designate “master” teachers and alternate route certification for principals.

Merit pay and tenure reform require the legislature to act.

Money for merit pay increases would come from firing bad teachers. Says the Governor:
“Any type of compensation that allows for anything but merit – gone.”

Seniority and graduate degrees (outside of math and science) would not affect pay.

But it is the Governor’s own plan that should fail any test based on merit. It ignores every major study on the issues. For example, a study recently released by Vanderbilt University and the Economic Policy Institute shows that merit pay simply does not work. The studies showing the unreliability of the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations have been discussed on this blog previously. This is not fact-based policy, this is politics.

According to NYU professor Diane Ravitch, “One of the signature issues of business people and conservative Republicans for the past 30 years has been merit pay. They believe in competition, they believe that financial rewards can be used to incentivize better performance, so it seems natural for them to conclude that merit pay or performance pay would incentivize teachers to produce better results.” Kind of like telling your kid they get $10 for an A and $5 for a B on their report card.

The last piece of economic reform proposed by the Governor would be to allow private companies to operate charter schools. Christie also called for swift passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would provide corporate dollars as scholarships to low income students who want to attend private or parochial schools.

So, connecting the dots, here’s the Governor’s plan. First, the Governor delivers a budget that diverts more tax revenue away from suburbs and into urban school districts than ever before. Second, the Governor announces a voucher lottery where 24,000 of the kids in the districts that got all the money can apply towards private school tuition. In New Jersey, educational funds follow the student, not the school. So when a student leaves a public school and goes to a private school, the state money also leaves the public school and goes to a private school. So, in reality, the Governor is taking taxes from the suburbs and giving them to private schools.

Another piece of the Governor's plan is that corporations will provide the scholarships that allow students to use their lottery vouchers and attend private schools. In exchange, the corporations get a tax break. So now the Governor is taking corporate income taxes away from the State and giving them to private schools.

So, in the final analysis, this is classic Chris Christie. Use educational policy to reward those who support him – private business and those who favor parochial schools – and punish those who oppose him – teachers. And the inner city kids who don’t get scholarships and have to stay in even less functional schools? Collateral damage. Acceptable losses.

I guess we should be grateful that the Governor is unwilling to take these policies to their fullest potential. For example, the school voucher program could set the scholarships at 75% of the price of private school tuition, creating a market for a new student loan program.

So Junior wants to go to school? Here's his first lesson -- nothing is free. Here's his second lesson -- in order to be a productive citizen, Junior must carry debt. Yes, we must start teaching Junior that the American way of life requires borrowing to live beyond your means. America doesn't actually produce that much anymore, so the only truly reliable source of revenue for corporate American is interest income on debt. So how better to teach Junior to be patriotic than to start him accumulating debt and paying interest at the earliest possible age? Because only when the middle class is completely strapped by debt and has no choice but to work at whatever job they can get can government pursue its true purpose -- servicing corporations.

Let's say Junior doesn't have the money to start repaying his loans when they come due in the sixth grade. Well, then we create a "work-study" program. Junior will spend 10 hours a week working either for the private bank that provided his student loan or the corporation that provided his scholarship. Because we have to support the student's right to make choices with respect to his or her education.

Perhaps the company has to pay its janitors too much money because of a pesky union. No problem -- send in Junior and the rest of the sixth grade class from Our Sister of Perpetual Debt. Or, maybe one day you will be driving down the Garden State Parkway and see a sign that says "The next mile of this road is maintained by Generic Bank", and there will be Junior and the sixth grade class cleaning up the highway wearing bright orange vests that read "Another Proud Private School Student."

But even this does not go far enough. To truly squeeze the full potential out of this school voucher program, we have to think of New Jersey's children as not just our future but as our future profit centers.

We can start small, auctioning off advertising space on the lapels and ties of the new mandatory private school uniforms. Nothing garish. The kids will just look like they are playing at the Masters or at the U.S. Open.

But the real money comes from all of that glorious debt the kids are generating. The State could take all of that debt, lump it together, then carve it up into little pieces and sell it as asset-backed securities (the assets are the loans, not the actual students -- at least at first). And, of course, the State will then sell credit default swaps so that the people buying the student loan backed securities can insure themselves against student loan defaults. The State will then start a program where, if you move your company into the State, you get to pick all of the student loans that go into a given asset-backed security -- then the State will go out and sell that security while the relocating company and the State sell the security short. It's win-win!

Of course, there is an inevitable end-game. Ultimately, the churches become ever more reliant on State-sponsored vouchers and loans. Then, when the market for student-loan backed securities goes bust and companies stop providing scholarships, the churches will become insolvent. And at that point, the State will swoop in and acquire the churches in a pre-negotiated bankruptcy, achieving the ultimate Church-State which has been the dream of the religious right since the invention of birth control.

Lucky for us Chris Christie isn't this ambitious.