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The real state of the union: Education, immigration and environment

Before the president’€™s speech, we invited 30 experts to offer straight assessments of the state of the nation in the form of brief reports, by subject. Keep returning for updates

State of the Union 2014
Barack Obama

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama will give his State of the Union address, fulfilling the Constitution’s mandate and American tradition. In preparation for the speech, we asked 30 authorities to offer their brief thoughts on the many subjects that touch on our country’s predicament. On this page, you can read their views on education, immigration, energy and the environment.

For their perspectives on the economy, click here.

For their perspectives on civil liberties, click here.

For their perspectives on foreign policy, click here.

We will be publishing these reflections on a rolling basis, so keep coming back for more.

Peter Taubman
Billie Shaker

The White House’s signature education reform initiative, Race to the Top, is often touted as a new civil rights movement. But these reforms, along with those of George W. Bush, have tragically turned public education into a multibillion-dollar “free market” that only hurts the very students and communities the reforms purport to help. Within this new education marketplace, individuals (like Bill Gates) and corporations (like Pearson Inc.) make fortunes, while public school teachers, their unions and teacher educators are pilloried, subjected to a micromanaged audit culture imported from the business sector and stripped of professional authority. Even worse, public students receive a minimalist, technocratic education that prepares them for little more than entry-level jobs at the very corporations that pushed such reforms in the first place. It is not surprising that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing, Koch-brothers-supported organization, has been so supportive of these misguided attempts at education reform.

Under the guise of supporting the poor and the disenfranchised, these reforms — such as mandating relentless, high-stakes testing; tying school survival, teacher pay and tenure to test scores; lifting the cap on the number of cram-for-the-test charter schools allowed per state; and mandating Common Core–aligned exams — have reduced teaching to test prep and marginalized the arts, foreign languages and social studies. By reducing teaching to behavioral techniques, assessment in terms of standardized rubrics and exams and learning in terms of quantifiable performance outcomes, they have turned teachers into delivery systems that can be automated or outsourced and students into numerical data. These reforms do nothing to end segregated schools or inequality in resources. They do, however, profit those who sell computers, data systems, packaged curricula, tests and test prep.

It is time we, as a nation, reclaimed the public good of education from the educational wasteland of the marketplace. It is time we took education out of the hands of hucksters, CEOs and the Business Roundtable and put it back in the hands of educators.

Peter Taubman is a professor of education in the School of Education at Brooklyn College in New York. He is a co-founder of the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn. His books include “Teaching by Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education” and “Disavowed Knowledge: Psychoanalysis, Teaching and Education.” He is currently working on a book offering a vision of education that is an alternative to current education reforms. 


Daniel Denvir
Jacques-Jean Tiziou

The media’s discovery of a racially segregated prom at a high school in the Deep South — Wilcox County, Ga. — prompted outrage on the Internet last year. But you do not have to travel to a small town with a heavy case of Jim Crow nostalgia to find American apartheid. Schools in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas — including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia — remain profoundly segregated. In New York, for instance, upward of half the public schools are more than 90 percent black and Latino. It is an issue that the country must address by increasing state and federal support to schools, moving away from funding education through local property taxes and promoting integrated neighborhoods.

This May marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. The court ruled that “segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation” is unconstitutional.

But most lawmakers have long since given up on the ideal of integrated and equitably funded schools. Instead, a bipartisan establishment has called on private-sector-inspired reform to work miracles across a U.S. public school system divided by race and class. But the enacted policies — high-stakes standardized tests and increased “choice,” by way of charter schools or vouchers for private-school tuition — are insufficient to meet the steep challenge we face. Instead, they often mask the problems or make them worse.

To address the challenge more concretely, we must look to the crisis in school districts across the country, where overwhelming budget cuts and pell-mell reforms have inflicted mass layoffs of teachers, counselors, nurses and aides.

Inequality and segregation, perpetuated by segregated housing, remain the core problems in U.S. public schools. Contrary to the talk of perennial alarmists, American students as a whole are not falling behind. Wealthy kids’ schools are fantastic. It is the districts attended by the downwardly mobile middle class and the poor that suffer.

Research and basic moral principles make it clear that integration and equality are the most powerful tools for school reform. To fix the nation’s schools, we must insist that American students of all races and classes finally attend equitably funded schools — together.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at The Philadelphia City Paper and a contributor to The Guardian, Salon and The New Republic.

Marc Rosenblum
Courtesy of author

The U.S. immigration system is broken. U.S. residents must wait years, even decades, for relatives to receive permanent visas. Employers face hurdles bringing in the workers they need, and the system is a bad fit for labor-market demands. And despite billions spent on immigration control, about 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants reside in the United States. These challenges have kept immigration on Washington’s agenda for over a decade.

While a durable policy fix remains challenging, some progress has been made. The immigration enforcement system has substantially expanded, with more border personnel, better infrastructure and the Secure Communities program to automatically check for immigration violations when people are booked into custody in the U.S. The E-Verify electronic employment eligibility verification system has also expanded.

Further progress occurred in 2013, when — for the second time in seven years — the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, all-in-one legislation to strengthen enforcement while modifying the permanent and temporary visa systems and allowing some current unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status. A comprehensive approach  offers concessions across the ideological spectrum and represents good policy because fixing the visa system and legalizing most unauthorized immigrants lays the groundwork for enforcement to succeed and vice versa.

Disagreements exist about the fate of the unauthorized population. Immigrant-rights advocates see legalization as a rational, fair response to the systemic causes of illegal migration. Opponents believe amnesty rewards lawbreakers. Some House Republicans appear poised to offer limited legalization in the form of legal resident status, without a predictable pathway to U.S. citizenship. “Legalization lite” may replace the unauthorized population with a more durable — and still troubling — underclass. It also may be a compromise that could pave the way for a long-needed, broader overhaul of the entire U.S. immigration system.

Marc Rosenblum is deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that analyzes U.S. and international migration policy and trends.


Dan Kowalski
Courtesy of author

The problems with the U.S. immigration system affect everyone, from farmers to tech billionaires. But they can seem especially frustrating to those with money to burn. That explains why Mark Zuckerberg and other outspoken CEOs are so active in the immigration reform movement. We can break down the current problems into four main categories: processing delays, antiquated rules, fraud protection and quotas.

The delays are self-explanatory. Simply put, the system for obtaining work visas is slow, and the rules are confounding. The main structure of current U.S. immigration law was cemented by Congress in the 1950s, and although business practices, international corporate law and the Internet have transformed the way we work, reforms have been marginal. As a result, businesses suffer because they can’t bring over workers as fast as they need to.

When it comes to fraud, U.S. immigration authorities started off with good intentions when they tried to reduce scams. Implementing fraud protection is a good thing, but very often Citizenship and Immigration Services goes too far — for instance, by asking Fortune 500 companies to provide more evidence that they really exist.

This brings us to quotas. When the H-1 visa for professionals of “distinguished merit and ability” was created in 1952, there were no limits on how many people could be admitted in that category. Congress added quotas in 1990, and now the 65,000 annual H-1B visa cap is reached within days of the application date. 

Some of these problems, such as processing delays and fraud protection, can be solved with bigger agency budgets and more training. But the core problems — the quotas and antiquated rules — need a complete overhaul. Legislative changes should include more visas in every category and simplified and more flexible rules. But when being (or appearing) tough on immigration is deemed essential by legislators seeking re-election, such rational changes are unlikely to see daylight.

Dan Kowalski is the editor-in-chief of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, published by LexisNexis. In 2010 he was named a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice Journalism. He is a member of ImmLaw, the National Consortium of Immigration Law Firms.

Andrew Finn
Michael Darden

A significant bright spot in 2013 was the rapid increase in domestic energy production.

Earlier concerns about peak oil, that hypothetical point after which crude oil production would irrevocably diminish, have evaporated with discoveries made possible by advanced hydraulic fracturing technology, which in turn have created a surge of domestic energy. We are now looking at the possibility of energy exports in a way that few could have imagined a decade ago. After years of increasing natural-gas import capacity, companies are now applying for permits to convert existing import facilities into export terminals in places like Quintana Island, Texas, and Cove Point, Md. We will see increased discussions on Capitol Hill about eliminating the ban on crude oil exports; if done correctly, such exports could be a boon to our economy. Mexico’s constitutional energy reforms, too, will lead to investment by foreign firms and increased production on the North American continent.

However, this abundance demands new regulations that reflect not the 1970s but our energy present. New rules that encourage responsible development while focusing on making Americans more judicious consumers of energy would go a long way toward securing our energy future.

A litmus test is Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline that would transport more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil a day from Alberta in Canada to the Gulf Coast. Environmental groups argue that it would encourage the development of Canada’s oil sands and exacerbate climate change, while pipeline advocates note that it would lessen the U.S.’s reliance on oil from Venezuela and the Middle East. The White House has yet to make a decision, but February’s environmental impact statement should give a good indication of the project’s chances. If the regulators determine that Canadian oil will find other avenues to market, namely rail or other pipelines through Canada, Keystone will likely be approved. 

Andrew Finn is a program associate at the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Jeff Biggers
Richard X. Moore

There is a dirty secret behind the current administration’s “all of the above” energy policy. While the Environmental Protection Agency made moves last year to limit CO2 emissions from future coal-fired plants, U.S. coal production is forecast to increase by 3.6 percent in the coming year — on the heels of last year’s disappointing bump in energy-related carbon emissions.  

Breakthroughs in solar and wind energy notwithstanding, Big Coal’s recent science experiment on the water supply for West Virginia’s children and future pulled back the curtain on the “all of the above” slogan to show the energy policy’s real face: regulatory inaction and a business-as-usual mentality in coal country. (And don’t forget the country’s ill-advised fracking and oil boom.)

One would think we would have learned our lesson after 2008’s Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond disaster, when the failure of a dike at a fossil-fuel plant sent millions of cubic yards of arsenic-laced ash into eastern Tennessee waterways. But five years later, the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress have failed to designate coal ash as a hazardous substance or even issue governing regulations for its disposal. More than 1,000 toxic coal ash ponds await the next disaster.  

On the heels of the West Virginia coal-chemical disaster, the federal response merely paid homage to the coal states of the union. The Department of Energy quietly gifted $1 billion to FutureGen, the coal industry’s Illinois boondoggle — the supposed “clean coal” venture that is a down payment, in effect, for the state’s comeback coal rush (and its accompanying spike in black lung disease, coal slurry disasters and clean-water violations), which is expected to surpass Appalachia’s coal production by the end of the decade. 

Bottom line: Far from an “all of the above” strategy, an effective climate action plan must operate under a comprehensive vision that mandates a just transition to a fossil-free future. 

Jeff Biggers is the author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” among other books. His website is

Rachel Cleetus
Richard Howard

In June the White House issued a Climate Action Plan (PDF), which laid out a series of administrative efforts to address climate change. Various federal agencies have begun to execute its policies, which is a good start but not enough. Americans need to be reminded that climate change is not just tomorrow’s problem; it is already costing us billions of dollars, and without serious steps to cut our emissions and build resilience, those costs will only grow.

The growing economic burden of unchecked climate change will fall disproportionately on the poor. Communities and local leaders on the front lines of dealing with the effects of climate change — coastal flooding, wildfires, drought, extreme precipitation — are taking steps to help keep people safe, but they need federal support.

It is also time to point out the risks of an “all of the above” energy strategy, which continues to entrench our dependence on fossil fuels. Cheap natural gas has been a boon to the U.S. economy and has helped bring down our carbon emissions because it is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal. But an overreliance on natural gas, which is where we seem to be headed, absent a smarter climate policy, threatens our ability to sharply curtail our emissions by midcentury.

There are, too, economic opportunities from ramping up clean, cost-competitive renewable energy and energy efficiency and from investing in upgrading and climate-proofing our aging infrastructure.

Ambitious U.S. climate policies can help propel action elsewhere. With the international community now focused on negotiations toward a global climate agreement in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry needs the White House’s full support to help deliver a successful outcome.

Congress must act as well; it should enact legislation to limit carbon by putting a price on it. In tight budgetary times, much-needed carbon revenues can be spent on tax breaks, deficit reduction or further climate action. Major corporations have already recognized the inevitability of a carbon price and are factoring it into planning decisions.

We must live up to our obligation to future generations to forestall some of the worst consequences of climate change, and for that, we need an invested leadership. 

Rachel Cleetus is an economist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Eduardo Padrón
Courtesy of author

These are uncertain times in higher education, but one thing is certain: We must place much greater emphasis on access to higher education and on equipping graduates with the skills they really need to succeed.

For the millions of Americans who struggle to become part of the middle class, higher education offers the greatest opportunity to enter the workforce with the skills and knowledge to be successful. Long gone are the days when Americans with little education could secure jobs working at the same office or factory for their entire careers and have the economic means to buy homes and cars, to pay for their children’s college education and save for their own retirement. Today two-thirds of new jobs require some form of post-secondary education. If we do not insist on a higher education system that gives access and opportunity to every single American, we are sacrificing our economic stability as a nation.

While we emphasize the importance of accessible and affordable college education, we must also focus on college completion and on equipping our college graduates with the skills that will help them succeed. We must give our students the financial, social and emotional support necessary to finish their studies, and we must prepare our graduates to be productive members of the ever-changing workforce. Our preoccupation with high-stakes testing serves too often to limit the scope of learning for students — a point reinforced by the United States’ largest employers, who tell us that graduates need to have a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. We must send our graduates into the workforce not as rote memorizers but as well-rounded, socially engaged and ethically minded human beings. In addition to discipline-specific knowledge, they will need critical- and creative-thinking skills, solid communication, analysis and problem-solving abilities, knowledge of emerging technologies and an appreciation for diverse cultures, the arts and the environment. 

Eduardo J. Padrón is the president of Miami Dade College, the largest institution of higher education in the U.S., with more than 175,000 students. His writings have been published in The Christian Science Monitor, U.S. News & World Report, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hispanic magazine and other publications.