Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Where did the Department of Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ lead?

Steven Brill
Sep 30, 2014 05:00 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Wright Middle School in Madison

We are fast approaching the fifth anniversary, on Jan. 10, of when state applications are due to apply for awards under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program.

Passed in early 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, Race to the Top offered $4.3 billion to be split among states that won a contest demonstrating they would use the money to enact what administration education reformers, led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlined as steps to improve America’s failing K-12 public education system. This system perennially spends more money per student compared to other countries, yet produces results at the middle or low end when it comes to how American children compare to their peers around the world.

Because Race to the Top was cleverly cast as a contest among states and their governors for much-needed federal dollars, it attracted outsized publicity, and quickly made education reform a high-profile political issue.

At the top of Duncan’s list of prescribed reforms was overhauling the way school systems evaluate teachers, reward them for good performance and weed out the worst performers.

Put simply, the teachers unions had, by the end of the 20th century, become so dominant across the country in education governance and local politics, especially in the Democratic Party, that teachers were treated like interchangeable “widgets,” as Duncan liked to say. They were not evaluated at all. Or if they were, 95 percent to 99 percent were given “satisfactory” ratings that then led to permanent tenure. They could not be fired unless convicted of a crime — although even convictions didn’t necessarily mean they lost their spots in the classroom or on the government payroll.

Just why does the NFL have tax-exempt status?

Steven Brill
Sep 23, 2014 05:00 UTC

NFL Commissioner Goodell speaks during a news conference ahead of the Super Bowl, in New York

1. Checking the NFL’s numbers:

In the wake of the fallout over National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of his players’ domestic violence arrests, there have been multiple reports by journalists, who read the league’s filing of form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, that Goodell was paid $44 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013.

But there are lots of other leads for reporters to pursue based on what is in that filing, which is a report that every tax-exempt nonprofit organization has to file with the IRS.

For starters, there’s the existence of the form in the first place. How could the NFL — which helps negotiate billions in media and promotion deals for its member teams and which itself reported an operating profit of more than $9 million and $326 million in “program service revenue” — be given nonprofit tax-exempt status?

Just how strange is Governor Andrew Cuomo?

Steven Brill
Sep 16, 2014 05:00 UTC

New York Governor M. Cuomo stands during a news conference following a bi-state meeting on regional security and preparedness in New York

1. What’s the matter with Andrew Cuomo?

By now I assume New Yorker editor David Remnick has assigned someone to do a profile of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is fast becoming the Howard Hughes of big-time politicians.

But just in case he hasn’t, here’s a reminder for him or any other smart editor why it’s time to take a long look at the governor: The New York Times report in late July detailing how Cuomo interfered with his supposedly independent corruption commission was great stuff. Even better were subsequent accounts in the Times and elsewhere about the governor’s clumsy attempts to explain things once he got caught.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his partner Sandra Lee talk during memorial observances held at the site of the World Trade Center in New YorkBut the scandal over Cuomo’s scandal commission — which has spawned an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in New York — seems to be the tip of a proverbial iceberg of not just classic political hypocrisy but downright weirdness and paranoia not seen among big-shot politicians since President Richard M. Nixon roamed the halls of the White House.

How much money is raised and spent in fighting cancer?

Steven Brill
Sep 9, 2014 05:15 UTC

Actress Paltrow is interviewed as she arrives for the fourth biennial Stand Up To Cancer fundraising telecast in Hollywood

1. Cancer money:

The Stand Up to Cancer telethon — simulcast Friday night on all four major broadcast networks and 28 cable channels, and live-streamed on Yahoo and Hulu (available on YouTube here) — reminded me of a story I have long wanted to read: How much money is being spent on cancer research, where is it going and how well is it being spent?

This story, from the CBS Los Angeles affiliate, reports, “Stand Up to Cancer was established in 2008 by film and media leaders as a new collaborative model of cancer research.

“More than $261 million has been pledged to support its programs,” the report continued, adding that the organization “has funded 12 teams of researchers, two transnational research teams and 26 young scientists.”

The cost of unlawful convictions, cable news’ sharp focus and reporting on kidnapped journalists

Steven Brill
Aug 26, 2014 05:00 UTC

Demonstrators shout slogans as they march towards the Ferguson Police Department to protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

1. Becoming a millionaire the hard way:

Last week, the New York Times published this article about a man receiving a $10 million settlement from New York City after Brooklyn prosecutors’ misconduct resulted in his spending 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

This is the latest in a series of recent payments that New York has made to settle similar claims, including those of the five men exonerated following their wrongful convictions in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.

I’m curious about what happens to these newly minted millionaires. For starters, how much money do they actually get after their lawyers deduct fees and expenses?

What’s the real story behind the Rick Perry ‘case?’

Steven Brill
Aug 17, 2014 14:34 UTC

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By now there should have been a pile on of stories shedding light on just how ridiculous the indictment of Texas governor Rick Perry is. Perry was indicted last Friday by a grand jury in Travis County, Texas, which includes the state capital of Austin. His alleged crime: “abuse of power” – for threatening to veto a provision in a pending state law that would fund a corruption unit in the office of the Travis Country prosecutor unless the prosecutor herself resigned.

Let’s stipulate that Perry didn’t like the idea of District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, investigating public corruption in Austin, which, of course, meant she could focus on the governor’s office.

Let’s also stipulate that when Lehmberg was arrested in a highly-publicized drunk driving case (police videos showed her stumbling around and belligerently reminding the cops who she was), Perry saw it as an opportunity. He was able to say that unless Lehmberg resigned he was going to veto the bill, which he ultimately did, because he didn’t want to fund “an office…at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”

The price of life and George W. Bush post-White House

Steven Brill
Aug 12, 2014 05:00 UTC

A spectator smokes a cigarette as she waits for the start of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai

1. How government accountants value life:

Last week, the New York Times reported: “Buried deep in the federal government’s voluminous new tobacco regulations is a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking — fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart — have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

I hope editors at the New Yorker or Sixty Minutes noticed.

Did you know that a federal agency — the Office of Management and Budget, which did the cost-benefit analysis described by the Times — actually employs people who calculate how many lives will be saved by government regulations; then calculates the dollar value of the lives saved, and then weighs that value against the “cost” of the regulation?  Apparently in this case, part of the cost to be calculated was the cost of the lost pleasure from quitting smoking.

According to this report to Congress, OMB must make a cost-benefit analysis for every rule where the projected cost of compliance is more than $100 million. The agency with the most rules falling into that category has been the Environmental Protection Agency, and OMB has consistently found that the value of the lives saved exceeds the cost of compliance.

What we don’t know about Qatar and what we don’t know about key Senate races

Steven Brill
Aug 5, 2014 05:00 UTC

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Qatari Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha

1. Inside Qatar:  the terrorists’ benefactor and America’s friend

As the war in Gaza continues, we keep hearing that one pipeline for negotiations with Hamas goes through Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich kingdom in the Gulf that has friendly relations with Hamas. In fact, Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas and provides financial support.

According to the online Times of Israel, “Qatar continues to fund the movement’s terror apparatus abroad, enabling tunnel digging and rocket launching.”

The United States, like Israel, has branded Hamas a terrorist group and, over the weekend, stepped up its criticism of the Qataris’ support of Hamas. Yet Washington maintains friendly relations with Qatar. The bond is so tight that the largest U.S. military base in the region is there.

The Russian sanctions information gap

Steven Brill
Jul 29, 2014 05:00 UTC

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine — all important stories — there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

The facts on Iron Dome, suing over Flight 17 and reviving the VA

Steven Brill
Jul 22, 2014 05:00 UTC

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod

1. Figuring out the Iron Dome:

As I kept reading and seeing television reports last week about how the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing such a good job protecting Israel from Hamas’ rockets, this intriguing story by the highly regarded veteran journalist James Fallows appeared on the Atlantic website.

Fallows points to other reports suggesting that the system’s success might have been greatly exaggerated and, in fact, that in the midst of war, reporters – he singles out this Washington Post story — often get seduced by military officials and weapons makers into overstating how effective some new piece of weaponry has been.

So, there is obviously a lot more work to be done here figuring out just how good the Iron Dome really is.

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