A Real War on Christmas

There are a lot of ways to spend Christmas Day. You can spend it with family opening gifts. You can use it as excuse to have a nice peaceful meal at a Chinese restaurant. If the weather is nice, maybe you can go for a hike. The one thing that would never occur to me is to shoot somebody. But 63 people got shot and 27 people were killed on Christmas Day. There were even mass shootings, one in Jacksonville, Florida, and another in Mobile, Alabama.

You’d think that maybe we could have a day off from this mayhem, but we can’t.

The number of Americans killed in gun homicides on Christmas Day is comparable to the number of people killed in gun homicides in an entire year in places like Australia or Britain. The 27 people killed by guns in America on Christmas this year is equal to the total number of people killed in gun homicides in an entire year in Austria, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Estonia, Bermuda, Hong Kong and Iceland, combined.

Maybe we can relax more gun laws in response. This seems like the only response we’re capable of making.

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Peter Greene Eviscerates the New York Times’ Editorial on Education

I wrote the last entry before I saw Peter Greene’s razor-sharp evisceration of the New York Times’ editorial praise for high-stakes testing and the Common Core. The editorial cited a number of spurious sources, all of them from cheerleaders for the Common Core.


I took on the general point that the Times makes: that high-stakes testing produces higher achievement. Surely after 15 years of NLB and Race to the Top, and five years of Common Core, no one believes that unless they are paid to do so or are hoodwinked by the former.


Peter looks at the underlying sources for the Times’ editorial and identifies each of them as fraudulent. For example, the editorial cites Education Trust for its claim that one of every five high school graduates were rejected by the military, but Greene finds this response from the Department of Defense:


For the military, the largest single disqualifying factor is health, including such problems as obesity. The estimate for those who are disqualified only because of aptitude is about 2 percent, said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. That includes not just people who failed the test but also those with other academic deficiencies, such as failure to get a GED.


The editorial claims that high school graduates in South Carolina won’t be prepared for the jobs available at automakers in the state.


But, writes Peter, this is not true.


Five minutes of googling indicates that they can be less worried. BMW appears ready to add more jobs in South Carolina, and these jobs include Forklift Operator and Production Associate. Production associates must have a year of steady job experience and be able to pass a drug test; they must also be willing to work any day they’re called, for a 10-12 hour shift. Forklift operators must have experience operating a forklift. Clearly more AP math courses would help graduates be better-prepared for these jobs.


How could the New York Times get everything so wrong? Peter says it is because they relied for their “data” on organizations funded by the Gates Foundation to promote the Common Core standards. Are these trustworthy sources?


He writes:


I suppose they are “bi-partisan” in the same way that The Tobacco Institute and most lobbying groups are “bi-partisan.” In that sense, the NYT board just stopped short of flat out lying by saying that these two groups are impartial or unbiased. But the Education Trust is a Gates-funded advocacy group from the earliest days of the Core. And Achieve is the organization that “helped” the CCSSO and NGA write the Common Core to begin with– no organization is more highly invested in the continued support and push of the Core Standards and the tests that are welded to them. And they earlier this month released a report that says– well, it says pretty much exactly what this editorial says.


In short, the NYT board has done the opposite of journalism here. This belongs with such classics as “Cigarettes Are Totally Good For You” or “US Must Solve Critical New Car Gap.” This is endorsing one political candidate without ever actually talking to any of the others.


The problems that face public education are complicated. In fact, right now they’re more complicated than ever because we have a muddy mix of actual problems (e.g. poverty, refusal to fully fund), created problems (e.g. charters stripping public schools of resources), and made-up problems (e.g. Oh Nos! Our students aren’t taking enough standardized tests!). All of these problems exist at the intersection of larger national issues such as income inequality, systemic racism, and the proper relationship between corporate and citizen interests.


What would help? Information. Correct, well-researched, thoughtful information. If you want to find one of the problems getting in the way of finding a remedy for everything that ails education, a good first step would be for journalists to stop uncritically running the PR of the people who want to dismantle public education and sell off the parts. The NYT did not solve any problems today, and they didn’t identify any, either. But they surely provided an example of one of them. Come on, New York Times– do journalism better.




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New York Times’ Editorial Defends High-Stakes Testing and Common Core

The New York Times published an editorial (“The Counterfeit High School Diploma”) today lamenting the poor preparation of high school graduates. The Times enthusiastically supported No Child Left Behind and applauds the continued federal mandate for annual testing. The editorial is a caricature of the criticism of high-stakes standardized testing. The editorialist believes that opposition to high-stakes testing was cooked up by teachers’ unions to protect their members, ignoring the parent-led opt out movement and the solid research base for opposing such testing (including statements by the American Statistical Association, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Educational Research Association).



The Times’ editorial says:



Teachers unions and other critics of federally required standardized tests have behaved in recent years as though killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States. In reality, getting rid of the testing requirement in the early grades would make it impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year.



The statement above is sheer nonsense. The loudest criticism of “federally required standardized tests” has come from parent groups, not teachers unions. No one has ever said that “killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.” And it is beyond ridiculous to state that without the testing requirement it would “impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year.”



Note to New York Times editorial writer from Planet Reality: There is a federal testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that reports on what U.S. students are learning every other year. NAEP has been testing students since the 1970s and reporting on states and individual districts since 1992. The scores on NAEP have steadily increased until the adoption of NCLB in 2002, when progress slowed. Test score gains came to a crashing halt in 2015, as NCLB, Race to the Top and Common Core converged in a frenzy of exactly what the New York Times wants.



If students are graduating with empty high school diplomas, it cannot be because there wasn’t enough testing. We have had a federal policy of high-stakes testing, and students are graduating unprepared for college and careers. So the New York Times’ solution: keep on doing what hasn’t worked for 15 years. Keep high-stakes testing and add Common Core so that standards are higher.



The New York Times blames states and teachers unions for the failure of high-stakes testing. It bemoans the loss of enthusiasm for the Common Core standards. Maybe the editorialist should do some research and learn that high-stakes testing creates perverse incentives to game the system, teach to the test, and cheat. Maybe he could start by reading Tom Loveless’s prediction in 2012 that the Common Core would make little or no difference in test scores, because the test-score differences within states (with exactly the same standards and curricula) are as great as differences between states. Test scores reflect demographics, not curricula, standards, or teacher quality. Anyone who believes that the Common Core standards will magically improve achievement and close achievement gaps has not been paying attention to research, evidence, NAEP, or reality.







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Marco Rubio’s Miami Vice Problem

When you see a headline like this [How Rubio helped his ex-con brother-in-law acquire a real estate license] in the Washington Post, you figure that you’re about to read a very long and sordid exposé. That’s not really what Post reporters Manuel Roig-Franzia and Scott Higham delivered in this case, though. Their piece has enough substantiation to justify the headline, but it doesn’t delve too deeply into the greater meaning and it leaves the most important question unanswered.

Let’s start with the fact that “ex-con” doesn’t really do justice to Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law. Orlando Cicilia was a major drug trafficker at a time and in a place that has gone down in history in movies like Scarface and television programs like Miami Vice for being notoriously violent and destructive.

According to public records, Cicilia was arrested after federal law enforcement seized the Miami home where he lived with Barbara Rubio, Senator Rubio’s sister. Barbara Rubio was not arrested or indicted. Cicilia was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana.

The arrest was part of “Operation Cobra,” a federal crackdown on a Florida drug smuggling ring that killed a federal informer and chopped up his body, according to a NYT story published at the time. The story reports that the ring, led by Cuban American Mario Tabraue, paid $150,000 in bribes to the Key West police chief and Miami-Dade county officials, and used Miami police officers to collect, count, and disburse drug profits.

About that part where they killed a federal informer and chopped up his body, the New York Times reported on December 17th, 1987:

The authorities said that in July 1980, members of [Cicilia’s drug ring] apparently became aware that Larry Nash was an informer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“Mr. Nash was murdered and mutilated,” Mr. Dean said. “His body was cut up with a chain saw and then burned.”

This drug ring reportedly did $75 million of business trading in marijuana and cocaine, of which Cicilia was personally responsible for $15 million. That’s a lot of cocaine and a lot of ruined lives, and the way they operated, it was a lot of violence, intimidation, and the cause of a shameful amount of public corruption.

To call this man merely an “ex-con” doesn’t capture the scope of his crimes.

When Cicilia was arrested, Marco Rubio was sixteen years old, and he can’t be held accountable for what his sister’s boyfriend and eventual husband did for a living. That his sister and the family stayed loyal to this man throughout his incarceration and welcomed him back into their lives and homes when he was released is admirable in its own way. When you look at the totality of the circumstances with this case, the Rubio family deserves a degree of credit for loyalty and a willingness to forgive. Orlando Cicilia served his time and he ought to be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that he’s been rehabilitated.

Still, this was a choice. It was a choice to essentially overlook the immense damage done by Cicilia and his gang to countless individuals and to the integrity of the local government and law enforcement institutions.

We have to balance the good and the bad here, and that’s the context with which we should judge the following:

When Marco Rubio was majority whip of the Florida House of Representatives, he used his official position to urge state regulators to grant a real estate license to his brother-in-law, a convicted cocaine trafficker who had been released from prison 20 months earlier, according to records obtained by The Washington Post.

In July 2002, Rubio sent a letter on his official statehouse stationery to the Florida Division of Real Estate, recommending Orlando Cicilia “for licensure without reservation.” The letter, obtained by The Washington Post under the Florida Public Records Act, offers a glimpse of Rubio using his growing political power to assist his troubled brother-in-law and provides new insight into how the young lawmaker intertwined his personal and political lives.

Rubio did not disclose in the letter that Cicilia was married to his sister, Barbara, or that the former cocaine dealer was living at the time in the same West Miami home as Rubio’s parents. He wrote that he had known Cicilia “for over 25 years,” without elaborating.

The Rubio campaign responds that it would have been worse if he had revealed his conflict of interest because revealing that Cicilia was his brother-in-law and was living with his parents would have put undue pressure on the members of the Florida Division of Real Estate. This is because, as majority whip of the Florida House of Representatives, he had “significant influence” over the Division’s budget.

That’s a defense, certainly, but a poor one. Rubio had two truly defensible options. He could have refused to write the letter because of the obvious conflict or he could have fully disclosed it and let the chips fall where they may. He chose to hide the conflict, and that was the wrong decision.

The Post reveals some additional information about how Rubio has helped his brother-in-law, including using him as a realtor and funneling “more than $130,000 in the past decade” to Cecilia’s two sons through various PACs and campaign coffers.

But that’s not the most troubling question here. This is:

Rubio also declined to say whether he or his family received financial assistance from Cicilia, who was convicted in a high-profile 1989 trial of distributing $15 million worth of cocaine. The federal government seized Cicilia’s home; the money has never been found.

I don’t know how much money was left over after the lawyers got paid, but it’s safe to assume that “the money [that] has never been found” was significant and became part of the Rubio family’s assets.

I have mixed feelings about how this story should be treated. In almost all cases, I favor forgiveness and a helping hand to felons who do their time and pay their debt to society. I don’t look unkindly on families that stick together and remain loyal to members who fall into addiction or crime.

But major drug kingpins are a little different than your garden-variety felon. People who trade in lethal addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin have such a depraved indifference to the death they cause that I have a hard time being forgiving, and this is especially true for major traffickers who are involved at least tangentially in murder, bribery and the corruption of public officials.

That Marco Rubio is not only a public official but is seeking the highest office in the land just puts this in a category of its own. I can’t strongly condemn anything Rubio is proven to have done, but neither can I really trust him, either.

This is definitely a legitimate story and something all voters should know about so that they can weigh the facts in a full and fair context. And, to be fair, Orlando Cicilia did his time. I don’t see anything wrong with him having a real estate license. I don’t care that Rubio used him as a realtor. It doesn’t really bother me that Rubio has employed his sons in his campaigns, although I hope they did some actual work.

On the other hand, I would like to be able to believe that Rubio’s whole political career wasn’t made possible by bloody cocaine money that was never recovered when Cicilia was arrested back in 1987.

Unfortunately, that possibility is an open question.

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Revisiting the Role of Money in Politics

For a while now I’ve been suggesting that there are some shifts going on in the role that money plays in our politics. This is something we should all be paying attention to because it creates both new opportunities and challenges.

The first thing to notice is that the impact the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is having on Republicans is a mixed bag…at best. Secondly, it’s clear that those candidates who have access to more money are not necessarily the ones who are leading in the polls or winning elections. As a matter of fact, for Republicans in the presidential race, the relationship seems to be almost the reverse. For down-ticket races, look no further than Eric Cantor.

Some journalists (like Gabriel Sherman) are starting to notice that billionaires are having a hard time buying this election. While others (like Nick Corasanti and Matt Flengenheimer) are pointing out that candidates are shifting how they spend their money. But almost no one is asking what has caused this shake-up.

To answer that question, you need to shift away from simply being appalled at the amount of money and start with something that seems obvious – how is it being spent? It has always been assumed that the role of money in elections was to pay for expensive television advertisements. More people are staring to notice that those aren’t working very well anymore. I’ve postulated that the reason for that started with remote controls, runs through things like TiVo, and is now facing the phenomenon of cord cutters and streaming. Who actually sits through a television ad anymore these days?

But regardless of whether I have identified the correct reason, there is no disputing the fact that the ads aren’t working. So its interesting to notice what Jeb’s campaign did yesterday.

Jeb Bush’s campaign is canceling its Iowa television advertising buy and shifting money to double staff on the ground in January, the final month before the high-stakes Iowa caucuses…

The larger context is that Team Bush is making similar shifts from TV ads to its ground game in other early states, too. In January, they’ll deploy 60 staffers from the Miami headquarters to the early states, including about 10 to Iowa…

Kochel said the Bush campaign’s changes will allow it to direct substantially more resources to persuading voters via digital ads, mail pieces, phone calls and conservative talk radio.

Personally I suspect that “mail pieces” are going the same route as television ads. When I was growing up people actually got interesting things in the mail (for you young ones, we called them “letters” back then). But now it is only bills and ads. All the interesting communication comes through our phones and computers.

So the future of campaign activities will be real person-to-person contact, digital communication, phone calls and – for conservatives – talk radio. In addition to that, we’ll see candidates exploit Trump’s mastery of what Mark Cuban called “headline porn.”

None of that costs much money (especially compared to television advertising). So what’s a billionaire to do? I’d guess that more of them will start doing what Sheldon Adelson just did when he bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. No one has ever had a fraction of the influence Rupert Murdoch has on our politics via his media empire.

If you ever needed a reason to support the kind of independent journalism you find here at the Washington Monthly…there you have it. As the landscape of politics, money and media changes right before our eyes, it is important to ensure that publications like this continue to be available. So please click on the banner below and do your part to make that happen. Thanks!

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Long Island Person of the Year: Jeanette Deutermann, Opt Out Mom

Many articles about the remarkable Opt Out movement claim that unions started the movement. But parents in New York don’t take orders from the union. They listen to their peers. The unions did not support opting out. Only a few weeks before testing began, the president of the state union NYSUT endorsed opting out. 
The leader of the movement on Long Island began her work three years earlier. Jeanette Deutermann was just named person of the year by a Long Island newspaper. She is a concerned mother and a dedicated activist. She founded Opt Out Long Island. In 2015, fully half the eligible students on Long Island opted out. Albany got the message. 
Congratulations, Jeanette.

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Tilting at Windmills

When Charlie Peters founded the Washington Monthly almost 47 years ago, he billed it as “a bold experiment in political journalism.” He was determined to produce articles that not only illuminate important issues but challenge and inspire people to reexamine their assumptions. He did not know that it would become such an influential magazine, changing policy debates on more than one occasion, nor did he realize that the Tilting at Windmills column he wrote for each issue would one day be regarded as a forerunner of today’s blogging.

We are still here, almost five decades later, almost a dozen years since we added the highly regarded Political Animal blog to our quiver, having survived a massive upheaval in the world of journalism and small magazine publishing, still telling the insightful stories that can be told only by a truly independent media entity. You can count on us continue to tell these important stories throughout the coming year — a year of consequential politics and policy directions. And you can help us continue to do so by sending us your tax-deductible donation today. Thanks to all of you who have chipped in already, we are well on our way to our goal of $20,000 by year’s end. Click here to put us over the top! We sincerely thank you, and send all best wishes for the New Year.

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