A provision of the controversial Bush-era education law mandates free tutoring for low-income children in failing schools. With the provision now at risk, Democrats are trying to save it.
These days President Obama is focused on getting Congress to agree to a deficit-reduction deal in order to raise the debt ceiling, but not so long ago he'd asked lawmakers, again, to reform No Child Left Behind. He recently used one of his weekly addresses to call for changing the controversial Bush-era law, which mandates standardized testing as a measure of school success.
"To strengthen education in this country, we need to encourage reforms not driven by Washington, but by principals and parents so schools can determine what is best for their kids," said Obama, criticizing the policy for being too rigid. "That is why it is so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year, so that schools have that flexibility. Reform just cannot wait."
Despite frequent complaints from Democrats about No Child Left Behind -- namely that it imposes sanctions on schools that fall short of its standards without providing enough funding to help meet them -- there are elements of the law that they actually like. One example is the Supplemental Education Services program: free, mandated tutoring services provided to students in low-performing schools. Under the law, students from low-income families are eligible to receive the out-of-school services. According to data from the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of the 650,000 students currently in the program are children of color.
Most importantly, it works. This March, the Department of Education (pdf) released a report on SES' impact on student achievement, showing that students who participated made significant gains in both mathematics and reading compared with students who did not.
However, in the Obama administration's efforts to retool No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed letting states waive certain provisions of the law to make it more flexible. On the potential chopping block is this requirement to offer free tutoring. A coalition of 13 Democratic members of Congress, including Representatives William Lacy Clay (Mo.), Corrine Brown (Fla.), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (Texas), is pushing him to keep it mandatory.
"Many of our own constituents have used SES programs and many remain on waiting lists trying to access these much needed services," they wrote in a letter (pdf) to Secretary Duncan. "Additionally, the effect of an SES waiver is particularly disconcerting considering the many hurdles already facing students who benefit from the program."
The lawmakers may have trouble being taken seriously when so few students have actually taken advantage of free tutoring. If 650,000 sounded kind of on the low side to you, you're right. Last school year, 1.4 million children were eligible to enroll in SES programs, but only 233,000 (17 percent) signed up. But they can explain.
"According to studies presented at the 2008 meeting of the American Education Research Association," the lawmakers continued in their letter, "Only seven states notify parents of their children's eligibility in time for enrollment in September. Additionally, delays in program access, confusing enrollment processes, lack of transparency, and insufficient parental notification may result in artificially low participation rates despite high need and high interest."
Another potential hurdle to rallying support is the bootstrap-pulling contention that out-of-school tutoring should be the responsibility of parents, not the government. Yet Tutor Our Children, a national advocacy organization of SES providers and parents, argues that pushing for extra, structured learning time is critical. "SES is targeted to high-need, low-income students because at-risk students often have the most to gain from support outside the classroom," the organization says on its website. "SES works for children and families, and we need to ensure our children are taking advantage of the many successful programs available across the country."
What do you think -- should the federal government continue to require access to free tutoring services for kids in failing schools?
As President Obama reportedly considers cutting billions from Medicare and Social Security in debt ceiling negotiations, here's some advice: Concede nothing.
After reports surfaced that President Obama is willing to cut tens of billions of dollars from Medicare and Social Security, as part of a grand bargain in debt-ceiling talks with Republicans, Democratic leaders swiftly sounded off against the idea.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that she will oppose cuts to entitlements as part of any package, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus circulated a letter to the president insisting that the national debt should be reduced through new taxes instead of cuts to safety-net programs. It reads:
First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences. These cuts would hurt households and damage the country's economic recovery as well.
Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal. Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable.
In terms of Medicare, the idea would be to take money from providers without actually reducing people's benefits. However, these kinds of cuts were already made under the Affordable Care Act, leaving less available in sensible savings and requiring more precision than a giant chop suggests. The approach to Social Security would be along the same lines of making changes to inefficiencies in the program without scaling back on remunerations.
In that context, is putting them on the table in exchange for closing tax loopholes for the rich necessarily a disaster? And can Obama even negotiate a better deal when Republicans have so far ruled out tax rate increases?
I chatted with Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, for his analysis.
"I can understand why the president is talking about perhaps doing this deal," said Fauntroy. "The thing that's distasteful to me is that people who are on Social Security and people who need assistance with health care are pretty vulnerable. I don't think it's right to use their needs as a bargaining chip over tax loopholes. It's a difficult issue, but if he makes the deal it's really not in the interest of poor people."
Then what should the president to do?
"He doesn't have to do anything," said Fauntroy, echoing Bill Clinton's "Don't Blink" argument. Since most people know that the debt limit must be raised, concede nothing. "The Republicans know that if they don't agree to a deal and let the debt limit hit, it's going to damage our economy. If things go badly, they're going to be the ones holding the bag. So I don't think the president ought to give anything to them. His unwillingness to fight it out on this gives credence to those who are concerned about his commitment to helping people in need."
Of course, that's a tall order for a president who has always used the more pragmatic approach of taking the best deal he thinks he can get. It's just not in his DNA to kneecap the other side. "I understand, that's not who he is," said Fauntroy. "But I think House Republicans have held the country hostage by demanding that he damage poor people even more -- and he's got to do better than that."
As Obama continues to work with lawmakers through the weekend, we'll soon see which approach he ultimately takes.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
A federal ruling to make new sentencing guidelines retroactive has been met with both caution and praise. Here's what's next.
In the few days since the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to make changes in federal sentencing guidelines for crack-cocaine offenders retroactive, the decision has drawn both grumbling and applause from folks on either side of the issue -- as is par for the course whenever things change in Washington.
Crack sentencing had already undergone changes last year when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the long-standing "100 to 1" sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine to a ratio of 18 to 1. The previous law sentenced people with as little as five grams of crack to a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, while those possessing powder cocaine needed 100 times as much for the same punishment. It's a gap that sent mostly black crack offenders to prison often for longer terms than white powder-cocaine users were given. Although the arbitrary narrowing of the disparity failed to eliminate the gap completely, it was a step in a more equitable direction.
After the law passed, the Sentencing Commission proposed an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that would give reduced sentences for newly convicted crack offenders. The amendment did not address, however, thousands of imprisoned crack offenders -- of whom more than 80 percent are black (pdf) -- who were already sentenced under the old rules.
Push-Back From the Right
Under the U.S. Sentencing Commission's unanimous vote last week, around 12,000 of these offenders will be eligible to seek reduced sentences. Making the new guidelines retroactive doesn't seem all that controversial, since the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in recognition of the old system not making any logical sense. But some Republican leaders in Congress are none too happy with the development.
Last month when the proposal of retroactivity was still on the table and being pushed by the Obama administration, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed his disapproval. "It shows they are more concerned with the well-being of criminals than with the safety of our communities," he said.
Following suit, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it a "bad idea."
From the sound of it, you'd think that the prison gates were about to swing wide open, flooding the streets with hordes of violent criminals. Is that what the result will look like? The U.S. Sentencing Commission chair, Judge Patti B. Saris, answers the question with an unequivocal no.
"The Commission is aware of concern that today's actions may negatively impact public safety," she said in a statement (pdf) last week after the ruling. "However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court in accordance with the Commission's policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender's potential risk to public safety."
In addition to each offender having to face a federal judge, Saris noted, the average sentence for a federal crack-cocaine offender will remain significant, at about 10 years. It's just that, now, offenders stand to have an average of three years cut from their prison terms. Retroactivity for eligible offenders will go into effect Nov. 1.
While a potential 12,000 reduced sentences out of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars hardly makes a dent in mass-incarceration policies in the justice system, the Sentencing Commission did as much as it could under the congressionally set rules it had to work with. The decision also goes further than what Attorney General Eric Holder recommended last month: to exclude those who possessed weapons while committing their crimes, and those with significant criminal histories, from being eligible for appeal. This approach would have left only 5,500 prisoners eligible to petition for a reduced sentence. Deeming it unsound, the commissioners ultimately rejected Holder's suggestion.
"The commission was very hard in their questioning of the view that the Attorney General Holder presented," Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, told The Root. "That's because the problem with the crack law historically is this presumption that defendants who operate in crack are violent, or more violent than someone who operates in cocaine. This belief is why, to this day, we continue to have an 18-to-1 sentencing disparity. That is fundamentally unfair, and I think the commission believes that is fundamentally unfair."
According to Saris' statement, fundamental unfairness is indeed what the commission's decision came down to. "In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine-sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," she said. "Today's action by the commission ensures that the long-standing injustice recognized by Congress is remedied."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
In a press conference, the president scolded (and laughed at) congressional Republicans for their "unsustainable position" on raising the federal debt limit.
In not-so-coincidental timing, President Obama held a press conference on Wednesday morning, hours before meeting with Senate Democratic leaders on the status of debt ceiling negotiations. With the August 2 deadline to raise the debt limit looming, and the parties seemingly at an impasse, Obama used much of his hour with the press to shame Republicans into a resolution, both pounding his bully pulpit and cracking some jokes at their expense.
Having long abandoned his preferred method of a clean, no-strings-attached vote to raise the debt limit, the president said that he’s willing to make more than $1 trillion worth of the spending cuts demanded by congressional Republicans. The savings, he said, were identified from a range of government programs. But the president will only agree to such a deal if Republicans also agree to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
“We can’t get to the $4 trillion in savings that we need by just cutting the 12 percent of the budget that pays for things like medical research and education funding and food inspectors and the weather service. And we can’t do it by making seniors pay more for Medicare,” he said, adding that lawmakers must look at the whole budget, including defense, entitlement costs, and those tax cuts for the super rich.
“The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. Tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners,” he said. “If we choose to keep those tax breaks…then that means we’ve got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we’ve got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.”
Well, when you put it that way…
The president added that he believes Republicans are posturing, and will come around to his side. “What we’ve seen in negotiations here in Washington is a lot of people say a lot of things to satisfy their base or to get on cable news, but that hopefully leaders at a certain point rise to the occasion, and they do the right thing for the American people. … My expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”
Furthermore, he argued that Republicans’ unwillingness to end the tax breaks is an unsustainable position. “If everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it will be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done.”
In response to the argument that the president is just employing scare tactics to pressure Republicans into raising the debt limit, the president maintained that there are economic consequences if the government defaults—and it’s not merely his opinion.
“August 2 is a very important date, and there’s no reason why we can’t get this done now,” he said before launching into a comedic riff on the comparable maturity of the First Daughters:
“Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework ahead of time. Malia’s 13; Sasha’s 10. They don’t wait until the night before; they’re not pulling all nighters. Congress can do the same thing. If you know you’ve got to do something, just do it!”
Just in case his feelings weren’t clear enough, Obama followed up with another barb, suggesting that lawmakers cancel their congressional recesses and buckle down:
“I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, ‘Well the president needs to show more leadership on this,’” he said, ticking off the multiple meetings and outreach he’s put in with congressional leaders on the matter. “I’ve already shown that I’m willing to make some decisions that are very tough, and give my base of voters further reason to give me a hard time. But it’s got to be done. … And if by the end of this week we have not seen substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to understand that we are going to start having to cancel things. And start staying here until they get it done. They’re in one week; they’re out one week. And then they’re saying, 'Obama’s gotta step in.' You need to be here! I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here!”
This all seems familiar. Back in April, during the countdown to the “government shutdown,” I predicted that the rigid, principled stands on both sides were largely kabuki dance and that they’d strike a deal soon enough. Whatever the final resolution looks like won’t leave either side thrilled, but I doubt the debt ceiling’s truly on the verge of collapse. What do you think?
Knowing HIV/AIDS awareness alone isn't enough, today government officials are issuing a direct call to action. Are you in?
Over the past couple of decades, numerous HIV/AIDS observance days have been established to address the epidemic’s impact in different communities. Among others, there are:
* National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (February 7)
* National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (March 10)
* National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (March 20)
* National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (May 19)
* National Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (June 8)
* National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (October 15)
* World AIDS Day (December 1)
While these days are observed by community organizations through health fairs and screening events, or in the media with stories on the challenges and advancements in fighting the disease, they don’t always involve a stark, individual call to action. More people may become aware, but without a specific goal in mind, it’s less clear whether they're actually altering their behavior in any way to reduce their risk of infection.
Today, National HIV Testing Day, is a bit different. Founded in 1995 by the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA), it has a singular, focused objective for everyone: Get tested. “Test-and-treat is not the whole answer to ending the epidemic,” says the NAPWA website, “But it's an indispensable first step.” To find a testing site near you, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at hivtest.org.
Check out how government officials in the beltway, including the president, public health leaders, and several members of Congress who walked the walk last Friday – getting tested themselves – are also encouraging Americans to “celebrate” today by taking action.
“National HIV Testing Day reminds each of us to do our part in fighting HIV/AIDS and get tested. It has been thirty years since we witnessed the emergence of HIV, an illness from which roughly 600,000 Americans have died and with which more than one million Americans live. … One in five Americans living with HIV is not aware of their infection and [recent] research highlights the imperative of making sure people know their HIV status and getting those who do have HIV into care. All of us have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to know our status and reduce our risk. So on this National HIV Testing Day and every day, I encourage every American to join the fight against HIV/AIDS and get tested.”
--President Barack Obama
“On this National HIV Testing Day, we have good news to report. In just three years, CDC’s expanded HIV testing efforts facilitated almost 3 million HIV tests in hard-hit areas across the nation, helping nearly 20,000 Americans living with HIV learn their status for the first time. …While these signs are promising, our work to end the HIV epidemic is far from over. … The majority of Americans have still never taken an HIV test. Many people don’t recognize that they’re at risk for HIV infection, even if they engage in behaviors that put them at risk. Others may fear what a positive diagnosis could mean for them, despite the effective treatments now available. And many people don’t yet realize that testing today is quick, easy and confidential.
On this National HIV Testing Day, don’t let fear or misinformation stop you from getting tested. I strongly encourage all Americans to get tested for HIV, and to text and tweet hivtest.org to your friends and family to encourage them to do the same.”
--Kevin Fenton, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention
“Today I received a rapid mouth swab HIV test in Washington where I was found to be negative. I wanted to show the importance of being tested on a regular basis; it’s the only way you can know your status. ... The stigma of being tested for HIV is still present in many communities. By renewing my commitment, I hope to show those in my district and around the country that this simple test could possibly stop the transition of HIV to another person.”
--Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)
“Of course, HIV testing is not enough. We must also make sure that those who test positive can get the treatment they need. … I am deeply concerned that the progress we have made against this devastating disease is in danger of being reversed. There are growing numbers of infected Americans who are on waiting lists for ADAP [AIDS dug assistance programs] because Congress has not provided sufficient funding for this life-saving program. … Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has made repeated efforts to repeal, defund and dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and allow health insurance companies to continue to deny coverage to Americans living with HIV/AIDS.
I call upon all Americans to take responsibility for their health and get tested for HIV, and I call upon my colleagues in Congress to maintain funding for HIV/AIDS research, prevention, testing and treatment and support full implementation of the Affordable Care Act so that people living with HIV/AIDS can continue to be productive members of our society.”
--Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)