TPM Cafe: Opinion

Education reform habitually generates more heat than light. For all the hype about “watershed” policy moments or existential “threats” to public education, the core experience of American PreK–12 education hasn’t actually shifted much in recent years. Remember how No Child Left Behind was supposed to dramatically overhaul public education? Well, now the Obama Administration’s waivers system has put it in mothballs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Until they don’t. That’s where charter schools come in. Given the difficulty we’ve had turning around struggling district schools, some in education figure that it’s time to start over. Charters have hiring, curricular, and schedule latitude that most district schools can only dream of. Research shows that when states have effective oversight built into their charter laws, these schools get stronger student results than their district peers. And yet, charter schools only serve around 4 percent of American students. Even if it’s easier to build better schools from the ground up, they’re hardly expanding at a rate that would fundamentally remake education.

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While our two major political parties remain divided on nearly every political issue, there is no partisan divide on teen pregnancy. Democrats and Republicans aren’t sparring over whether teen pregnancy is bad, nor are they locking horns about the need to prevent it. In fact, it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who called teen childbearing “our most serious social problem” in his 1995 State of the Union address. But this framework of social hysteria, that teen pregnancy is an out-of-control crisis, simply isn’t true. Not by a long shot.

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Last week, the White House took several steps to protect college students from rape: releasing a task force report which included many recommendations for universities; announcing a new website (, which will serve as a resource for survivors; and deploying several celebrity-studded public service announcements. Two days later, in an unprecedented display of transparency, the Department of Education released a list of 55 schools currently under investigation for allegedly mishandling rape and sexual assault allegations.

A couple of weeks before that, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R-FL) and Lois Capps (D-CA) introduced The Truth in Advertising Act. If passed, it would direct the Federal Trade Commission to develop a strategy to reduce the use of images that have been “altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted,” because evidence shows that such images cause “distorted and unrealistic expectations and understandings of appropriate and healthy weight and body image” and has “been linked to eating disorders.”

As a feminist—and a woman—these developments leave me happy, heartened. It’s about time the government step up on these issues. Bravo, I want to cheer.

And yet.

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Tuesday night’s primary election in North Carolina set up a critical Senate race this fall - one that could not only decide who controls the Senate, but offers a perfect illustration of the ideology that’s increasingly driving our political debate, even if it goes mostly unmentioned.

To explain why, let me start with Eric Cantor.

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When the Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that individual states could decide whether or not to accept new federal funding to expand Medicaid, it changed health care politics. The Affordable Care Act’s architects had envisioned a big role for Medicaid – fully half of all uninsured Americans would qualify for the program, if every state expanded their offerings. But even though the federal government is slated to pay for almost all of the cost, partisan wars have raged in the states about whether to accept the expansion. As of mid-2014, two dozen largely Republican-led states have so far refused to expand their Medicaid programs.

Although the states largely split on partisan lines, some states with GOP governors or Republican legislative majorities have agreed to expand Medicaid – and more such states may yet do so. The new politics of health care are creating divisions in forces in and around the GOP.

Consider America’s best-known business association, the Chamber of Commerce. In many states, Chambers have lent their considerable clout to forces pushing for Medicaid expansion. As my data show, although Chambers of Commerce in 24 states have stayed on the sidelines, Chambers in another 24 states have publicly come out in support of Medicaid expansion. Ironically, in several states, such as Arizona and Missouri, Chambers have actually waged high-profile campaigns to lobby GOP-led legislatures for Medicaid expansion even while continuing to decry the Affordable Care Act overall.

Given that neither the national Chamber nor its state affiliates are known for supporting President Obama or boosting Democratic initiatives, why is this happening? I am still looking into the factors at work, but three stand out so far.

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The Ms. Foundation for Women held a star-studded gala last week heralding its 40 years of activism, and celebrating feminist icon Gloria Steinem's 80th birthday. Founded in 1974, the Ms. Foundation has been devoted to eradicating economic inequality for women -- and Steinem in particular been a thought leader in the many ways in which women’s labor is valued less than men’s.

Their work is far from over.

Just one day prior to the gala, the Senate Republicans successfully filibustered Democrats’ attempt to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. The measure would have phased in over two years, and it would have also raised the tipped minimum wage (currently a meager $2.13 per hour for servers and other tipped professions).

This vote -- and Congress’s overall lack of will to raise wages for U.S. workers -- disproportionately affects women. According to last month’s analysis by National Women’s Law Center, some two-thirds of all minimum wage positions are held by women. In at least four states (Nebraska, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Vermont), more than 70 percent of all minimum wage workers are women. In at least 20 states (including Texas, Oregon, Georgia, and Alabama), 60 percent of all minimum wage workers are women.

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For “Establishment” Republicans, the good news is that their Senate candidate in North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis, won yesterday’s GOP primary without a runoff, easing comfortably past the 40% victory threshold. Fiery “constitutional conservative” Greg Brannon was second with 29% of the vote, and Christian Right candidate Rev. Mark Harris trailing with 16%.

The bad news is that the victor emerges from the contest hard to distinguish from the extremists he defeated.

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There’s still a lot to unpack in the Donald Sterling audio; it’s an amazing accomplishment of racism, sexism, and emotional manipulation. Regardless of how or why someone recorded this conversation or why they leaked it, one must note Sterling’s insistence that his personal assistant V. Stiviano keep her associations with African Americans out of the public eye.

That this comes from Sterling, who owns an NBA team with a predominately African American roster and who employs an African American coach, is ironic in its own way. But the idea that only a certain amount of blackness should be public is not a new concept and is often played out in sports, film, television, and music industries.

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When the anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy stepped before the cameras to “tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he also stepped into far-reaching and noxious American historical myths about self-sufficiency, race, and rugged individualism. Bundy’s actual words - delivered in a Western drawl by a man in cowboy hat and boots, against a backdrop of sagebrush and desert scenery – were mostly the same old “government makes people dependent” arguments that saturate the right-wing blogosphere and FOX News.

But there was something else embedded in Bundy’s observations about "the Negro" that bears mentioning.

Students of the history of the American West have long known that the strong, rugged individualists that populate our movies, TV shows, and myths always depended on government – to give them ownership of their farms and ranches, to subsidize private corporations like railroads for access to markets, for federal troops for protection from Indians, and federally funded dams and canals for irrigating their fields and sustaining their livestock and towns.

The idea that Bundy’s pioneer ancestors somehow made their fortunes (“built that”) without any help, before the invention of government assistance, the Bureau of Land Management or federal regulations, is preposterous.

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On the surface, a business decision by Google doesn’t have much in common with a pending court case involving women’s health. But both involve abortion, and both just might show a way to break out of the morass that the national debate has fallen into. When it comes to abortion, it’s far too easy to let emotion and assumptions take precedence. But here more than ever, it pays to take a step back and give the same respect to the evidence and facts as less sensitive subjects receive.

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