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a southern yankee abroad

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November 2016

A Race to the Top, or to the Bottom Line? My Concerns with President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Education Appointment

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I have to admit, President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education post was his first that didn’t make my jaw drop in disbelief instantly. I decided to keep an open mind and research her background before making up my mind, even as I immediately started seeing pro-DeVos and anti-DeVos posts in my Facebook “echo chamber.” After all, as President Obama said, if President-elect Trump succeeds, our country succeeds. So, between studying for finals and seeing friends and catching up with family over the last few days, I began my research…

She is a big Republican donor with 0 experience in a public school or in education period. Still trying to keep an open mind, I kept researching…

President-elect Trump said that Ms. DeVos will work to “reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” I am all for this, but what does this mean, exactly?

Since my time in Teach For America, I have had a love-hate relationship with charter schools. During my time in TFA, I had the privilege of teaching at one of the oldest public high schools in Memphis (Melrose High School in Orange Mound). I also had several friends who taught in charter schools—some of which were were providing great learning environments and opportunities for their students, and others which were poorly run and were failing at achieving this vision. Charter schools are unique animals—they are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that are free from the directives and oversight of the local school district. Many times, this independence and freedom equates to a greater latitude for visionary school leaders to run schools that outperform their public counterparts (shout out to Soulsville Charter School, Libertas Academy, Freedom Prep Memphis,  Memphis Grizzlies Prep, Veritas Memphis, and the many other amazing charter schools) . Other times, this independence and freedom leads to schools that perform at a lower rate of achievement than their public counterparts, with minimal course-correction directives from the district. screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-9-33-32-pm

While in TFA, and since then, I have bristled at the idea that charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution to the grave issue of education inequity in our country. Partially because I saw what some of my friends saw and dealt with at poorly run charter schools, and partially because I was teaching at a public school whose students deserved the very best in funding and policy from our government as well.

Ms. DeVos is a proponent of charter schools as well as “school choice” via vouchers. What is wrong with giving vouchers to families who may not be able to afford private school tuition to be able to send their children to higher performing private schools in the area? Here’s what’s wrong—no matter how much “school choice” our government finances, there will be students left behind in increasingly failing public schools because of this measure. Money will go to vouchers instead of improving our existing public schools. Not every student will get a voucher, and even if many do, our public schools, and the students remaining there, will be left even farther behind, and the inequity will grow even deeper and more serious. We can’t afford to go down this path for 4 years—children’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake.

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On an end-of-semester bowling field trip with some Honors Students!

It is true that in the 8 years of President Obama’s leadership, our country has not solved this grave issue of educational inequity. I was able to teach during a time when Tennessee was one of President Obama’s Race to the Top recipients, which saw mixed results—positive outcomes (some increased student achievement) as well as negative outcomes (increased bureaucracy and mandates on over-worked teachers). All-in-all, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the federal government, even if it didn’t solve all the many, complicated issues of educational inequity overnight. And as much as I love TFA and its vision as an organization to strive for the realization that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” I hope and pray, and will continue to work toward, making sure TFA goes out of business.

What do I mean? I mean I don’t think our country should need TFA— we need to continue to address improving our public schools ASAP to meet TFA’s vision, which I think encompasses what we all want for all of our children as Americans. [I personally think the first steps towards this are 1) addressing issues of systemic poverty that directly affect low-income students (healthcare, access to food, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunities for families) 2) raising teacher pay and increasing benefits for teachers through classroom resources and professional development, 3) adopting higher national standards for curriculum (Common Core or an improved curriculum), and 4) limiting class sizes and/or decreasing the teacher/student ratio in every classroom (I regularly had 30+ students in a classroom all by myself, and all of these students were on various learning levels.) But that’s for another blog…]

For today, I hope Ms. DeVos focuses on improving our current public schools instead of trying to throw money at the problem through vouchers and increasing the presence of charter schools, some of which may work but others of which will be free to fail at their leisure because of a lack of local school district oversight, but at deep costs to their students. We should not take our focus off improving the educational outcomes and life trajectories for our current and future public school students.

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Is the Electoral College the OG Trump University?

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Later this month, our President-Elect is scheduled to go on trial in federal civil court for alleged fraud for his now-defunct Trump University real estate education program (this is unprecedented in American history). Which has gotten me to think about other universities and colleges that have failed those they were established to serve.

The Electoral College was established as part of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and is spelled out in Article II. The College is composed of Electors that are assigned to each state based on the number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives each state sends to Washington. For example, Alabama has 2 Senators and 7 Representatives, so it gets 9 electors. New York, a state with a higher population, has 2 Senators and 27 Representatives, so it gets 29 electors. Traditionally, a candidate that wins the popular vote of a single state will be awarded all of the electors of that state. Trump won 290 electoral votes and Clinton won 228 votes, so he won the election.

But Clinton won the popular vote by between an estimated 200,000 and 400,000 votes. This is the fifth time in history that this fluke has happened—the other 4 times were when Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote in 1888, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1876, and Andrew Jackson won the popular vote in 1824 (he actually also won the electoral vote, but Congress chose John Quincy Adams under the 12th Amendment provision after Jackson failed to secure the majority of electoral votes).

Even Donald Trump has called the Electoral College a “disaster,” in a way only he can—via Twitter—in November 2012.

Our Constitution was drafted to “form a more perfect Union” and “establish justice.” Which is why I have been feeling frustrated and hopeful that Hillary won the popular vote on Tuesday. (Hopeful, because it means over half of Americans do not condone Trump and what he stands for).

I am frustrated because my vote didn’t count. It is my civic duty to vote, and I did it, but the Democratic votes in blue New York state basically didn’t count once the count passed that critical number needed for Hillary to secure the state’s electors. All other votes were basically extra fat for the trimming.

This also means Democratic votes in heavily red states like Alabama and Mississippi didn’t count towards anything either.

If the election had come out the other way—if Hillary had won the electoral college and not the popular vote—I would absolutely understand the justified frustration from Trump voters. We are all Americans and we all deserve to have our vote count toward the outcome.

How can we preach that people need to get out to vote, when only the votes of those in “swing states” like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida tend to decide elections? Where is the incentive to vote when your state historically leans toward one party or the other?

As a baby lawyer (I am just in my first semester of 1L), I know I don’t know everything, and I know part of my professional duty is to defend our Constitution. But it’s not a perfect document and it’s amenable to change. The Constitution also said black slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, and we all know that black people are 5/5 of a person, just like everyone else. We also currently have 27 amendments to the Constitution, meaning it can change.

One defense of the Electoral College is that it protects the democracy from itself. In Federalist Paper 10, James Madison wrote about protecting the democracy against “factions” and the lurking issue of sectionalism in the new republic. But we live in a different time. While there are still the concerns of sectionalism, our nation fought a war and the outcome was that we remained together as one nation. Our populace is literate and online. We have access to information on the Internet like never before. I have faith American voters can make decisions for themselves.

One argument in favor of a modern Electoral College is the chaos that could result if the popular vote were very, very close. Recounts of individual ballots could take a lot of time and resources. But when has convenience ever been a valid reason to deny justice? Perhaps a new popular vote provision could have a “too close to call” backstop that allows electors or Congress to decide an election if the popular vote is close by a certain percentage?

I believe the Electoral College disenfranchises voters. Before this election, there was much worry and discussion about a “rigged” election and voter intimidation on both sides. But I think the disenfranchisement has been baked into our law for a while.

I know this view won’t be popular with some of my liberal friends, but I think we need to honor the Constitution as it stands today and accept that Trump won the electors in this election. But I do think we need to have a serious discussion and re-examination of this outdated institution. And I don’t want to forget about this issue until it pops up again in 4 years. I will be writing to my Senators and Representative about this over the weekend, and I hope you consider doing the same. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, it could be you who loses by a fluke in the next election. Yes, the Electoral College is part of the compromises that allowed our country to be formed over 200 years ago over heated sectionalist debates. But we are a different country today. One goal of our Constitution is to establish justice, so one person should equal one vote.

Echo Chambers in the Age of Trump

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I live in two Americas. I am a daughter of the South but a citizen of New York City. In the last two days, the divide that exists in this country has ripped open even further, and I have found myself struggling with the national cognitive dissonance I am observing playing out on Facebook and other social media. The realization hit me yesterday (like a load of bricks) that I uniquely have a foot in both worlds. Many people can open Facebook and see only the views that “echo” their own playing out across their Newsfeed. I see views from both rural and urban America, views I agree with and disagree with. I recognize now that is a special position not shared by many of my friends in both worlds. I also take personal responsibility for not engaging those who don’t share my views more.

Whether you are a member of my right-leaning or left-leaning sphere, I want to ask that you keep an open mind not only as you read this post, but as you work to unify our country. As you read this post, please just assume that those who do not share your political beliefs are not inherently bad, just for the sake of argument.

In full disclosure, I enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton, but I also truly believe we all need to listen to President Obama’s call for unity. For all of our sakes, I am praying that President-elect Trump is not the hateful, prejudiced, loose-lipped, undisciplined, ignorant leader that so many of us genuinely fear he will be. His words, actions, and beliefs have already affected the faith many of us have in this country in the last few days. If you supported Trump, I ask that you please not shut down after reading that. Please know I am not trying to “win an argument” with you. Please know that, from what I am reading on Facebook, many of you out there are truly not aware how genuinely afraid people of color, religious minorities, LGBT people, and victims of disease and violence are right now. I simply want to make you aware. Please accept this assertion as true.

Trump’s views really upset me in a visceral, I-feel-sick-in-my-stomach way. That being said, I want to point out to those of you in my left-leaning sphere that most Trump supporters I know are not racist, misogynist xenophobes. My struggle in the last 48 hours has been dealing with this disconnect—how can people I love and care about condone the beliefs and political platform that embolden actual racist, misogynist xenophobes who are out there? I ask this honestly and respectfully, without trying to provoke or denigrate anyone. We all as people are broken, but not irredeemable.

One realization I have come to is that many people overlooked these horrific qualities because they truly believe that the election of Trump will directly lead to millions of lives saved because of his stance on abortion. Please do not roll your eyes or laugh…that will get us nowhere. Please, for the sake of argument, try to understand where these voters are coming from. In full disclosure, I am pro-choice (my personal views are best expressed here). But please know that many people truly believe abortion is murder and that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices that will overturn Roe v. Wade. I think these voters don’t realize that Roe was decided by a conservative court, yet they are putting their hopes about this issue in this basket. Also, it doesn’t matter that Trump used to be pro-choice and (somewhat conveniently) changed his mind to get Republican votes. To these voters, President Trump = saved lives. If you have these deeply held beliefs about abortion, it is hard to let any other issue sway you.

That being said, the fear that Trump’s message is causing is real. I can’t tell you how many Facebook statuses I have seen from privileged white men in the South (who are my friends) that talk about how happy they are that that the election is over, that life will go on as normal, and that the dramatic social media posts will soon stop. I love y’all as people, but y’all are speaking from a place of privilege. Speaking from my own position as a female, I have felt particularly devalued in this election and by the outcome Tuesday night. I also humbly admit I don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color right now in a country that elected a KKK-endorsed president 8 years after it elected its first black president, but it really, really upsets me that it happened. What I do know is that we all need to recognize that this election really is unlike anything we have seen in our (millennial) lifetimes. We need to commit to protecting one another as there are so many unknowns with what’s to come in the next 4 years.

I am still soul-searching and grappling with what this election means for our country and for me personally. One solid conclusion I do have is that we all need to listen to each other. Safe spaces are important. It is important for someone who is passionately pro-life to have a place they can talk about their views and not be made fun of. You will find this in many churches in the South. I grew up in the church, and you will find many good people there, despite what the election Tuesday may make you believe. It is also important to have a community where you can express how afraid this election has made you feel, because you are a woman, a person of color, a minority, or a white man who cares about these groups, without being made fun of. I have found this community at NYU Law and among many friends from both NYC and back home in the South, and I am so grateful for this.

Safe spaces are important, but we all need to make sure we are stepping out of our own echo chambers. Trump is our president-elect, but we can all still reject racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. I want people in both my “worlds” to know that I am here to engage with you in a non-judgmental way. We all have to stop writing each other off just because we don’t share the same political beliefs.

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