Public Education Funding

October 4, 2016 – Members of the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss Public Education Funding in the United States, led by Education Center co-directors Nicki Felmus and Guy Raber. Some of the questions they asked were: is smart spending or equitable funding more important? What role does the federal government play when it comes to funding public schools?

 

One of the most popular policy solutions was the “Robin Hood” funding model, in which the property taxes from wealthy districts in a state are redistributed to poorer districts. Proponents of this idea saw this as a way to relieve some of the stark funding disparities that districts in the same state can have. Opponents to this model stressed the need for smart spending, citing the statistic that Camden, New Jersey spends more than twice the national average per student, but 90% of their students are below proficiency in several key areas. This also served as a call to reconsider the idea that education is necessarily better served by more money. It was suggested that, in every state, a smart, targeted distribution of funds would have a bigger impact. This idea was met with resistance from those who argued that any infusion of money into the country’s poorest school districts would be helpful, if only in running their day-to-day operations or to pay their teachers.

 

Much of the conversation focused on programs that would operate outside of the traditional school day. There were multiple calls for universal pre-K, something that states such as Oklahoma, Florida, and New York already have, citing the fact that children who begin their education at an earlier age typically see benefits for their entire life. Others brought up expanded afterschool and weekend activities, designed to keep students engaged in their school communities. One member brought up an idea for busses that run several hours after the end of the school day, allowing students whose parents work to participate in these afterschool activities without needing to arrange alternate transportation.

 

Another popular idea was that of a universal minimum salary for teachers in public schools. This would prevent more skilled and experienced teachers from leaving poorer schools or districts for those that can pay them more. This would combat the “teacher brain drain” that many disadvantaged or underfunded school districts see. A related idea advocated for expanded partnerships with local private universities, a relationship that some schools already take advantage of.

 

There is, in all likelihood, no single solution to how we fund our public education system. Though specific policy proposals differed, everyone agreed that something needs to be done about the state of public education in the United States, and that many of its issues stem from insufficient or ineffective funding.

The Final Frontier

By Cameron Davis

On March 22nd, the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss the issue of neutrality and conservation in space and how the increasing possibility of energy harvesting in from asteroids, planets, and other celestial bodies should be approached by the federal government. Although space exploration and exploitation seem to be far off, setting the groundwork for the future is an important step in order to guide progress for years to come. Co-Center Directors for Energy and the Environment Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz focused the discussion on four major areas – space law, mining in space, scientific missions, and contamination of space and earth environments.

Harper began the discussion by giving a run-down of some of the most important points for the day’s meeting, including lesser-known space legislation such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which banned national appropriation of celestial bodies and outlawed weapons of mass destruction from the atmosphere; the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 which permits all private and commercial satellites and launches; and, most recently, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, a bill that died in committee that would have regulated development of property rights for states and companies alike on claims to celestial bodies. By framing the debate with the key current legislation on the topic, Harper and Schwartz contextualized how contemporary international bodies and federal governments alike are approaching outer space.

The discussion naturally began, then, with whether either public or private missions should be allowed to use extraterrestrial resources for survival, fuel, mining, or other personal uses. The debate on this point was heated: while many Roosevelt members feared that over-regulating space could discourage private entities from becoming involved and ultimately stunt scientific progress, several other members were more cautious. “If governments don’t regulate these corporations,” seemed to be the thinking, “what’s to stop them from making unsafe, reckless, and exploitative decisions just in the name of profit?”

With that question still unanswered, Schwartz went on to re-contextualize the debate within the purview of space ecosystems – how important, exactly, is environmental consideration of celestial bodies, and to what extent should conservation be prioritized over lucrative resource extraction? This question proved to be quite contentious, dividing the room into two primary factions: one was all too cognizant of the mistakes made with our own earth and warned that without heavy regulation, our actions could similarly destroy the delicate environments of thousands of other bodies; the other group demanded a more humanist line of thought, explaining that by using other planets to our advantage we could live more at peace with our own earth without putting undue stress on the resources it gives us.

The discussion took a brief detour before final thoughts thanks to an interruption by an individual representing Mama Aerospace (http://www.mamaaerospace.com/), who used the time that he was given when called upon to pitch his own personal deep space transportation company and ask for general feedback about the policy implications of his initiative. The individual brought a sense of realism and practicality to the otherwise nebulous policy discussion, and helped underscore the importance of the topic in policymaking for the not-so-distant future.

Ultimately, participants in the discussion were unable to come to a consensus about how the United States and international bodies should regulate outer space (if at all) and deal with the crossroads between scientific exploration and environmental responsibility. Even though it may be difficult, continuing one without the expense of the other should be the focus of future policy decisions.

Raising the Minimum Wage and Alternative Options

By Jason Zhao

16 February 2016 — With election season in full swing, debate over raising the minimum wage continues to rage on across the country in town halls and on stage. This past Tuesday, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University discussed both policy solutions and possible alternatives for minimum wages.

Perhaps the most well known policy is current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $15. This more than doubles the current $7.25 rate, leaving some members concerned that this increase would cause significant job loss especially among small business owners who employ two-thirds of all Americans.

Additionally, this policy brought up the question of whether minimum wage should be determined at a federal, state, or local level. Establishing minimum wage at a local level would certainly be the most robust by allowing large metropolitan areas like New York City to set a rate independent of rural upstate regions; however, the issue of practicality arose which pushed the solution towards the state level.

Two of the most popular alternatives to a minimum wage that were discussed are the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a universal basic income (UBI). The former functions as a subsidy for low-to-moderate income individuals, particularly workers with children, by boosting income as much as $3000 per year. Proponents of EITCs argue that it provides an important incentive to work and that it has the capacity to keep an additional estimated 11 million people out of poverty. More specifically, the economic impact of EITCs are twofold: direct subsidization and indirect wage increases from a greater number of people in the workforce. A UBI, on the other hand, is a system that provides an unconditional income to every citizen, indiscriminately. This has the added potential of drastically reducing administrative welfare spending and by some estimates, could provide every citizen in the US with $8000 per year of income if all other welfare spending stopped. Supporters of UBI argue that it provides low-income individuals with much more freedom in both spending and saving their money. The “Alaska Permanent Fund,” for example, pays every resident of Alaska $2000 a year and has made Alaska’s poverty rate one of the lowest in the country. In fact, Alaska is the only state to become more economically equal in the past 30 years.

Opponents of the EITC saw it simply as a band-aid to the United States’s already badly bleeding welfare system. They argued that a UBI would be a much more efficient way of helping low-income individuals, not only giving them more bargaining power against employers, but also as a means of providing financial compensation for familial caretaking. Others maintained that a UBI provides no incentive to work and is much more easily manipulated. Rather, we should focus on improving our current welfare system.

Bridging the gap, one solution released by the Brookings Institute in 2014 garnered wide support from the group for its relatively moderate measures. These included increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, indexing for inflation, and providing more generous EITC stipends for families with young children. Most economists agree that this approximately 39% increase in minimum wage would have little effect on job loss, and many members praised inflation indexing. While the merits of the ETIC and UBI were hotly contested, one thing was apparent at this weeks meeting: we need new policy to address the insufficiencies of the minimum wage now.

Flint Water Crisis

by Madeline Ducharme

On February 9th, 2016, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University discussed the extremely relevant and pressing topic of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With the concentrations of lead in Flint’s water far surpassing basic human health standards, there has been outcry from all over the country. People are considering Flint’s crisis as a case of environmental racism as the community affected is comprised largely of people of color as well as people living below the United States poverty line.

Headed by the Roosevelt’s co-presidents of environment, Charles and Nikita, we considered drastic policy solutions that included the complete overhaul of Flint’s water infrastructure as well as the implementation of a new “sexier” New Deal (truly in the spirit of Roos himself). The discussion also dealt with the issue of responsibility. While many supported the immediate resignation of the mayor of Flint and the governor of Michigan, others found this action to be too extreme and a waste of Flint’s quickly depleting financial resources. The argument over this mostly boiled down to the difference between ideology and action; some found the the lack of immediate prosecution of the mayor and governor a potentially dangerous precedent to set while others believed that all government funds should be focused on dealing with the crisis at hand, bearing in mind that there is little time to find replacements for these positions if the two men were to resign.

Roosevelt discussed some of the intense implications that this crisis has on United States infrastructure overall due to the fact that Flint is by no means the only city dealing with dangerously contaminated water. The economic aspects of this issue were also hotly contested amongst the group. This became quickly became a rather divisive issue for Roosevelt as members debated whether the municipal, state, or federal government should pay for the intense repairs that need to be undertaken. Despite the back-and-forth on infrastructure, resignations, and economics, Roosevelt disbanded Tuesday night with the overwhelming sentiment of the fact that water is a human right and we, as a highly developed country, cannot allow for crises to escalate like this.

Rise of the Far Right in Europe

By Michael Pusic

Meeting Recap: The Rise of The Far Right

On February 6th, the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss the widespread rise of far right parties in Europe and the U.S. Given Trump’s rapid ascent to power and the polarizing effect of surging immigrant populations in Europe, few issues seemed more pressing or relevant. Though many were familiar with the nature of such movements at home, discussion shed light on the intricacies and parallels that could be found in countries ranging from France to Hungary. Center Director for Defense and Diplomacy Ademali Sengal and Journal Editor Jordan Singer set out three major issues for discourse: the causes behind this rise in extremism, obligations regarding the refugee crisis, and the possibility of nations exiting the EU.

 

Sengal opened the discussion by observing two similarities between the far right in the U.S. and Europe: First, both used strongly anti-immigrant and even anti-Muslim rhetoric, and second, both were led by ‘outsider’ candidates who were not part of the existing establishment. From this, discussion naturally flowed to how these aspects revealed the similar causes behind both movements. In Europe and the U.S. recent terrorist attacks have led to gross generalizations about Muslims and foreigners as a whole. This has been especially true in Europe, where millions of refugees are pressing at the borders of such nations, and their economies are struggling to bear the according welfare costs. Many also argued that the movement away from traditional candidates in recent elections reflected a popular disenfranchisement with mainstream politics. Economic turmoil in Europe and political gridlock in the United States has eroded faith in the establishment and made many more willing to support extremist movements.

 

From this, Singer moved the discussion towards the burden that the U.S. and Europe hold in regards to the international refugee crisis. Concerns were raised about reports of immigrants committing crime in their host nations, but others argued that these claims were largely anecdotal and that given Europe’s aging demographics, the surge in a younger population would be largely beneficial in the long run. The main issue of discussion was whether or not European economies would be able to bear the welfare cost of immigrants and if deteriorating economies might further the rise of political extremism. Policies were then proposed regarding what the U.S. could do to alleviate this burden. While some recommended providing aid tied to the acceptance of refugees, others believed that we should take in the immigrants ourselves given our larger and more robust economy.

 

Finally, Roosevelt discussed popular movements in Britain and Greece to exit the European Union. In May 2015, David Cameron acquiesced to a referendum on EU membership in order to prevent the rise of an extremist party and to ensure the Tory vote. Though it is very unlikely that the UK will leave the EU, members largely agreed that this sets a dangerous precedent and harms the image of the European Union. With an unemployment rate of 26% and a GDP-to-Debt ratio of 177%, Greece is similarly considering exiting the EU. This economic desperation is exacerbated by the fact that they are the first, and often last, stop for refugees travelling by boat from Turkey. Again policy proposals largely centered around means to alleviate these economic woes, in order to maintain stability and political centrism.

 

Ultimately, the discussion found that the rise of the far right stemmed from fragile economies threatened by large influxes of refugees. However unlikely, a solution to this issue must deal with the financial woes that have pushed so many to support radical solutions.

What Makes a Vote? Discussing America’s Electoral System

by Emma Gomez

On January 26th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to ask the question: What Makes a Vote? With the Iowa caucus less than a week away, it seemed only right that the first discussion of the spring semester focused on this contemporary issue. While most would argue that they have an educated understanding of the presidential election process, the discussion proved that there were many details of the process that members were not aware of and a lot of area for policy recommendations. To address these issues, Outreach Director Ricardo Jaramillo (CC ’19) and Treasurer Emma Cloyd (BC ’19) began the discussion by separating the details of the process into four distinct categories: voter ID and registration, caucuses vs. primaries, delegates and super delegates, and voting scheduling.

In 2007, the New York Times reported only 120 cases of voter fraud out of the millions of citizens that cast a ballot that year. Despite the small percentage of the population taking part in this wrongdoing, the demand for stricter voter ID laws from conservative lawmakers has resurfaced as a hot topic in the upcoming election. Moreover, demand for policies to increase voter turnout have emerged in recent years, as 24% of the eligible population of voters are not registered.

Members first put to rest the controversy over voter ID laws, explaining that they were a non-issue created to exclude minorities and lower class citizens from democratic processes. To increase voter turnout, members suggested online or automatic registration as effective policies to streamline the process and make it more accessible in a country dominated by technology. The idea of same-day registration was also offered as a way for citizens to be able to participate in the election without having to remember to register 60 days before they’re scheduled to cast a ballot.

The discussion then moved on to an explanation between a caucus and a primary. Ricardo and Emma described how caucuses and primaries both involve selecting delegates for candidates, but in different ways. During a caucus, people go to a meeting and discuss the candidates before casting an informal vote. While in a primary, voters submit actual ballots as they participate in a sort of preliminary election. There was debate between members over which style of election they preferred. Those who favored the caucus system advocated for its focus on discussion while those who preferred the primary favored the way it gave voters a chance to actually cast ballots rather than simply claiming they support a candidate.

The discourse then transitioned into the open vs. closed primary/caucus system. In an open primary/caucus, voters are not required to declare party affiliations while casting a ballot as they are in a closed system. The members who were in favor of the open system spoke to how declaring party affiliation increases partisanship while those who were fond of the closed system explained how party members could sabotage the votes of a candidate from another party in their state if their candidate was secure.

The participation of super delegates was another contentious discussion topic. Super delegates, unlike regular delegates, are not required to support the candidates that win their respective states. Given that they are usually either party officials or members of Congress, some members of the group decided that their experience was necessary to ensure the candidate who would work best within the system gets the position, while others argued their participation was completely undemocratic.

Finally, the discussion ended with discourse over front-loading, or the idea that candidates who win early caucuses and primaries will gain momentums that last throughout the election season. Some members offered the idea of switching around the order of the state primaries and caucuses in order to ensure that states with varying interests could have the focus and coverage that the initial states enjoy.

Ultimately, it seems that these large scale election reforms will take years to bring to fruition and what policy makers should be doing now is ensuring that the current system continues to be fair and allowing all eligible voters to participate.

Bail Reform and Plea Bargaining

by Olivia Ghosh

The intricacies of the United States’s legal system are further complicated by two key issues: bail reform and plea bargaining. Current bail and plea bargaining practices may infringe upon 5th and 6th amendment rights as well as the principle that an accused criminal is “innocent until proven guilty.” The Roosevelt Institute spent an hour on Tuesday, November 24, discussing the various complexities, consequences, and alternatives to the two practices.

The discussion began with an overview of bail and the history of monetary bail. Monetary bail is a relatively recent installation in the justice system. Release on recognizance — a contractual agreement to appear in court — has historically been the favored practice. However, the crux of the issue lies in the question of whether holding an individual pretrial is a violation of the presumption of innocence principle. When one is arrested, a judge determines a monetary value for bail based on the likelihood that the accused will flee or pose a threat to society. This amount must be paid in order for the accused to be released before his or her trial.

The discussion focused on several aspects of bail. First, many participants agreed that monetary bail is problematic because low income, minority groups are often the ones unable to pay bail. In this case, they go to jail and may lose their jobs in their absence even in the case of total innocence. To prevent this, some members suggested that judges should take into account the accused’s income before determining bail in order to set an amount that is fair but is not impossible. However, many people found bail to be a necessary evil in preventing potential criminals from fleeing. Despite this, there was enthusiasm for proposed bail alternatives to protect the rights of the accused including risk assessment programs and other pretrial programs that cost less than holding people in jail.

When the discussing plea bargains, many similar issues were raised. A plea bargain happens when a defendant pleads guilty to a crime in exchange for a lesser sentence. Most of the cases in the justice system are never brought to trial because of plea bargains. Because the courts and accompanying public defenders struggle to process their current caseload, much of the group agreed that some form of plea bargains are necessary. This position was countered by members who noted that many things are unjustly criminalized in the United States and that the issue would be partially solved if fewer things were illegal. However, in our current pretrial system, low income people are often coerced by overworked prosecutors into taking plea bargains when they would perhaps have gone to court had they more knowledge or better lawyers. To combat this, some members proposed that the prosecution should be legally obliged to disclose all evidence to the accused.

The final thoughts of the night circled back to a few key policy changes. First, many people mentioned giving public defenders a lot more funding in order to provide low income people with counsel at bail hearings and better defense against plea bargains. Many members also mentioned decriminalization as a solution to these issues among others.

Monopolization of Standardized Testing

by Emma Cloyd

On Tuesday, November 17, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia discussed the monopolization of textbook — the three major ones being McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson —companies on high school curriculums in the United States. Many states also have standardized, state mandated tests designed by these companies that they use to assess how schools are operating vis-à-vis student scores. The discussion was moderated by Nicki Felmus, the Education Center Chair, and Karen Reppy, a general body member.

In most states, these companies set public schools’ curriculums. This has both positive and negative consequences. Since the companies are private, competition between them to make the best possible textbooks with the most up to date research allows for increased quality in educational materials. However, multiple members raised concerns about the impact that these private companies can have on the content of curriculums as Pearson writes different tests for different states. Ricardo Esteves, who is from Texas, raised this concern by discussing how there are movements within the state government to ban teachings of evolution in public schools. Since these textbooks companies are private and for profit, they have no reason to not indulge Texas in such requests. All of the members agreed that this control that private companies exert on public educations should be concerning to Americans because it does not necessarily guarantee an equal or even similar education to all students.

Furthermore, the competition between the three major companies comes across through the high pricing of the textbooks. Many of these textbooks cost well over $100 and are a massive financial burden to many school districts. Additionally, the same companies that design the books typically design the state mandated standardized tests, used to rank high schools, students, teachers and ultimately to decide the amount of funding a school should receive. One member of Roosevelt, Emma Gomez, remembered taking a test on a subject that clearly corresponded to a newer version of a textbook than the one her school had used; this adversely affected the test results and the students’ learning outcomes.

This led to a discussion of the cyclical nature of rewarding schools for higher test scores. Schools that score well on state mandated standardized tests tend to receive more funding from their state. As a result, these schools become further advantaged by gaining or increasing their financial capability to hire the best teachers, improve their facilities and purchase the best textbooks. Conversely, schools who do poorly on the tests are subjected to budget cuts which in turn make it more difficult for them to improve or maintain their current quality of education.

The dramatic impacts of these state mandated standardized tests made the group ponder the overall emphasis our education system puts on standardized testing more closely. Not all students are good test takers, despite how much practice they have, therefore it is not necessarily fair to use these results alone to judge how schools are operating. Furthermore, when students have low test scores, teachers are often blamed and are at risk of losing their jobs. Therefore many teachers teach “to the test,” planning their curriculum around achieving higher test scores rather than broader educational goals. Many members of Roosevelt agreed that this is not a good idea because it teaches students to find loopholes in the test rather than how to think critically.

The group also discussed the importance of the SAT and ACT in college admissions. Like the aforementioned state tests, these college admissions tests can be gamed for higher scores; however, in order to learn how to do so students often have to hire expensive tutors or attend classes. This is incredibly unfair to who cannot afford extra prep. Furthermore, these tests cost money to take and send to colleges, again giving deeper-pocketed students a leg up. As a result of the amount of money required to do well on these tests and subsequently utilize them, underprivileged students are at an extreme disadvantage.

Roosevelters proposed many policy solutions ranging from removing state mandated and college admissions tests to leaving these tests in place but deemphasizing them. The group almost unanimously agreed that these tests should not hold as much weight as they currently do. The members also agreed that if these state mandated tests do stay in place, schools that do poorly on them should receive more funding rather than less. This would facilitate improvement, allowing all public schools to offer equal educations to students in the United States.

Roosevelt Trip to Washington D.C.: A Reflection on the Realities of Policymaking

by Upasna Saha

It is a privilege to be a student at such a politically active university as the 2016 presidential election heats up; groups across the political spectrum are holding debate watches, meet-and-greets with campaign officials, and canvassing events. It is even more rewarding to participate in an organization like the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University, which holds weekly discussions on a variety of issues and fosters a community of people who are genuinely curious about public policy. But even as I acknowledge these incredible experiences, I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency amongst those of us who consider ourselves to be politically involved: we discuss a variety of issues – from Hillary Clinton’s finances to gun control to the role of media in campaigns – without providing or even considering policy proposals for these same topics. This is understandable; policy construction is daunting. It’s easy to identify a problem in our flawed political system, but, particularly as a college student with limited experience, it’s much harder to take the next step and try to actually solve the problem through reasonable policy solutions. Even Congress can’t seem to do it. Partisan gridlock and the influence of money in politics only fuel the ever-popular sentiment that government ignores the average voter and his or her positions. People have less and less incentive to actively engage with the issues surrounding them, even though this stagnation and silencing only makes it more obvious that we need comprehensive, unique policies which address our issues and can garner support across the entire political spectrum

After spending four days on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the Roosevelt Institute and meeting with bureaucrats, analysts, lobbyists, and Congressional officials of all stripes, it quickly becomes apparent that, depending on whom you ask in the political field, the preferred means to create policy differs. The media portrays two extremes of political motivation: the altruism of for-the-people idealists and the selfishness of Machiavellian schemers. But, as a staffer for Congressman John Conyers sagely said to us, “If The West Wing is at one end and House of Cards at the other, the reality is somewhere in the middle.” And that general sentiment was reflected in the various methods we heard of attacking the multitude of issues the country grapples with.

The think tank approach is to examine raw data, make observations, and target observed phenomena through policy initiatives. Depending on the type of think tank, what actually constitutes as data may differ. For an organization like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, qualitative data is more important than quantitative data. Meanwhile, a domestically focused organization such as the Center for American Progress uses more quantitative research to address larger goals like reforming sentencing for non-violent crimes. By understanding that data, they are able to create specific initiatives, like banning college applications asking about an applicant’s criminal and disciplinary history, to target the initial problem.

There are also organizations in which individuals advocate for an already-existing standard position. The bureaucracy is an excellent example of an institution in which such a strategy is used. The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is partially an investigative team in which, based on precedent, lawyers and paralegals conduct investigations to ensure that industries are indeed abiding by current laws; similarly, the Federal Election Commission reviews statements of donors and candidates to ensure that all those who are financially participating in our political process are doing so legally. This approach even exists in the private sector in a different iteration with lobbyist organizations like the Podesta Group which, by representing a client, make their specific position a reality in American politics.

Both these approaches are equally valid. In fact, in order to create effective policy, it is necessary both for those who are focused on individual issues to propose solutions and for those within the political system to ensure that those solutions are viable, and to either tailor or counter them.

Today, with increasing partisan gridlock and party polarization, a healthy dose of pragmatism is needed to survive in D.C. People simply can’t afford to champion policy solutions which fail to garner enough support; they have to be realistic about their position as it relates to those of others. The people we visited, both in the public and private sector, confirmed this. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, was incredibly upfront about the current unviability of public financing as a solution to money in politics. Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel, who sat in a panel with McGehee, was not much more optimistic about being able to fully regulate money in politics given the current vagueness of American laws which do not strictly control regulation, disclosure, or donations. Congressman Conyers’ staffer spoke about the difficulty of discussing bipartisan environmental policy when the vast majority of the Republican Congress either doesn’t believe in or refuses to acknowledge climate change.

Yet even as people we spoke to were realistic about what it takes to further policy in the current political climate, they were not disheartened, and made sure we were aware of that. Ultimately, the future of policy depends on what it has always needed: passionate people with a variety of political allegiances, with knowledge of specific issues and the inner workings of the process. Passion may have become more stifled, the process more convoluted – but, as Congressman Keith Ellison himself reminded us, if we the young don’t have any hope of being the change, no one else will.