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Monday, February 4, 2013

Morning news of note

Posted By on Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 6:41 AM

A few other items to mention on a slow Monday morning:

* BLOWING UP THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE: Republicans have backed off, for now, a plan to game the electoral college system by dividing state electoral college votes by congressional district. But Talking Points Memo reports growing Republican support for moving presidential elections to a system decided by the national vote, previously a one-man, one-vote idea favored primarily by more liberal types. How about that? Representative democracy.

The rigged congressional system, in which Republicans land a majority of House seats despite an overhwelming national vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, was the subject of another analysis over the weekend in the New York Times. Republicans are worst offenders in the gerrymanders.


HAVING the first modern democracy comes with bugs. Normally we would expect more seats in Congress to go to the political party that receives more votes, but the last election confounded expectations. Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin. This is only the second such reversal since World War II.

Using statistical tools that are common in fields like my own, neuroscience, I have found strong evidence that this historic aberration arises from partisan disenfranchisement. Although gerrymandering is usually thought of as a bipartisan offense, the rather asymmetrical results may surprise you.

Through artful drawing of district boundaries, it is possible to put large groups of voters on the losing side of every election. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based political group dedicated to electing state officeholders, recently issued a progress report on Redmap, its multiyear plan to influence redistricting. The $30 million strategy consists of two steps for tilting the playing field: take over state legislatures before the decennial Census, then redraw state and Congressional districts to lock in partisan advantages. The plan was highly successful.


* IF ALL SCHOOLS COULD BE CHARTER SCHOOLS...: .... a lot of students wouldn't go to school at all. Reporting from the Washington Post examines the high expulsion rates in Washington, D.C. charter schools, including one of the lauded KIPP schools, which has taken steps this year to lower its expulsion rate.

With KIPP having grown to 125 schools in 20 states and the District, including a few high schools, KIPP principals and teachers are finding it harder to create such a peaceful environment for adolescents. This is particularly true in the District. KIPP’s D.C. schools are considered a model for urban public education. But its small high school, KIPP College Prep, expelled 17 students in the 2011-12 school year for violence, weapons and drugs.

The KIPP statistics came from my colleague Emma Brown’s groundbreaking report on the surprising number of students being expelled from D.C. public charter schools. I wrote a book about KIPP and have been visiting its D.C. schools since 2001, so I asked KIPP D.C. Executive Director Susan Schaeffler and KIPP College Prep Principal Jessica Cunningham what was going on.

As independent schools, charters are allowed to expel students, but regular D.C. public schools except in extreme cases (three expulsions last year) can only do involuntary transfers. When I last checked in 2008, the expulsion rate for all KIPP D.C. schools was 1 percent, nine out of 900 students. Last year, that rate was up slightly to 1.4 percent, 39 out of 2,632 students. But expulsions at the high school last year jumped from seven to 17, about 6 percent of the student body, as the school had four serious fights and a drug incident.

... [KIPP numbers have improved substantially this year, the article notes. But....] ...

Charter school critics have said the expulsion figures in Brown’s report prove charters are keeping their test scores high by kicking out students who don’t do well academically. That is not the case with KIPP, where only students who have endangered other students are forced to leave. But Brown’s article indicates expulsions at other charters are sometimes for tardiness, truancy and dress code violations, which is bad policy.

Brown’s report raised a good question: Why are charters expelling so many students? It also introduced another issue: Why are traditional public schools forced to keep dangerous and disruptive students who make it difficult for other students to learn?

If we knew how to rid such young people of their damaging urges, expulsions would be unnecessary. But we don’t know how to do that consistently. Until we do, serving such students at a school just for them, as some districts do, is the only sensible option. The focus should be on giving the largest number of children a chance to learn, not sparing district leaders from making difficult decisions about students who cannot control themselves.

Sure. Schools that must educate only students willing to learn — with parents committed to that mission —exhibit better performance. The schools that MUST take the leavings? If they fail, it's the fault of the nasty teacher unions. Never mind that approximately two of more than 200 school districts in Arkansas negotiate employment contracts with a union.

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