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New York’s All-Day Pre-K Plan: Good News for Teachers?

3:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Students at Bank Street Head Start in New York City, a free pre-K program for families under the federal poverty line. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to provide universal pre-K in NYC. (Image: Bankstreet College of Education)

Originally published at In These Times

Following a national trend of opening public schools to children younger than 5, New York’s newmayor, Bill de Blasio, plans to provide universal access to all-day pre-kindergarten, funded by an income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Expanding pre-K services to all eligible 4-year-olds in the city—perhaps as many as 50,000 kids—would cost an estimated $340 million, both to enroll new students and to expand half-day programs. Back in the late 1990s, New York state led the country in boosting public pre-K with a law mandating universal access, but since then districts have failed to fully fund this measure, and New York City’s school system falls far short. De Blasio proposes to fund his program with a “rich tax” that would bring in roughly $530 million. The balance of the money would be invested in afterschool programs for middle-schoolers.

The program is a popular one across party lines. Reams of research show that investing in preschool for all children can dramatically shrink “achievement gaps” across racial and economic lines. And it may also pay fiscal dividends: According to the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute, “High-quality pre-kindergarten benefits government budgets by saving government spending on K-12 education, child welfare, and the criminal justice system, and by increasing tax revenues.” Even conservatives, generally skeptical about anti-poverty programs, can at least value the idea of pre-K as a welfare supplement to alleviate the childcare burdens of parents who might otherwise be working more hours. And community groups, teachers and unions have championed De Blasio’s  initiative, focusing on the promise of much-needed resources to serve more pre-school students with more comprehensive programs.

While advocates generally see universal pre-K in New York as a potential boon for the early-childhood education field—one of the few public-education sectors that’s actually expanding nationwide in a time of severe budget cuts—some are concerned about whether the plan will meet the needs of both educators and students in struggling public schools. Read the rest of this entry →

National Paid Family Leave May Finally Be on the Horizon

6:12 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is one of the sponsors of the bill to support paid leave insurance for families. (Flickr / personaldemocracy / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Any working parent will tell you that raising a family might as well be another full-time job—one that comes with no vacation days or health benefits. But millions of Americans don’t get days off from their regular job, either, even for the sake of their health or their family’s.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), just 12 percent of American workers can take paid leave time to tend to an illness in their household, and only about 40 percent can get time off for themselves through employer-sponsored disability coverage. This gap affects about two-fifths of the private sector workforce, or 40 million people—a vast deficit compared to many other industrialized countries, where paid leave is routine.

Now, though, some lawmakers are recognizing that taking a few weeks off to deal with a health challenge shouldn’t hurt your paycheck. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have sponsored legislation to establish a nationwide paid family leave insurance program that would partially protect the wages of workers who take time off for the medical needs of themselves or their families.

Financed by small contributions from payroll checks and employers, the program would allow workers to “take time for their own serious health condition, including pregnancy and childbirth recovery; the serious health condition of a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner; the birth or adoption of a child; and/or for particular military caregiving and leave purposes,” according to a briefing by NPWF, who is one of the groups campaigning for the bill, known as the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) Act.

The proposed monthly benefits would generally range from $580 to $4,000, depending on income. Like Social Security taxes, the insurance would require a small payroll deduction from the employee and would enable workers to earn as much as two-thirds of their regular weekly earnings for 12 weeks. After the first year, the payment rate would increase based on the average national wage. Overall, advocates say, the federal program would help provide stability for many low-income and precariously employed people by covering workers in any size workplace at any income level, including part-timers.

With the state of current legislation, activists point out, even workers with some insurance coverage may experience extreme hardship when a child’s illness destabilizes a family. In a testimony gathered by the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition, a mother named Devorah from Rosendale, N.Y. recalled the hardships she faced when her daughter was born premature with a severe medical condition and continued to suffer from long-term medical problems in later years. Though her family had some insurance protection, Devorah said, “By the time we walked out of the hospital with our baby, we had spent an additional $30,000 out of pocket.” In her daughter’s first years, she went on:

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Obama’s Universal Preschool Plan: As Good as It Sounds?

6:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

President Obama promises to strengthen early childhood education, but will he follow through with funding? (Children's Bureau Centennial / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Of all the mildly liberal, media-genic proposals that peppered President Barack Obama’s state of the Union Address, one seemed especially designed to withstand curmudgeonly criticism from the Right: universal preschool. The image of millions of young tots learning their ABCs and fingerpainting is hard to demonize as evil Big Government.

Nonetheless, Obama’s sweeping plan for the nationwide expansion of early childhood learning programs may not be as straightforward as it seems, especially for the workers who will be expected to carry out the program. The White House’s broad talking points leave open the question of whether the dramatic expansion of preschool programs will be coupled with adequate federal funding.

Plenty of empirical research shows that strong early childhood education can boost future educational development, particularly among kids facing socioeconomic barriers like poverty. But getting early education right means cultivating skilled and motivated teachers. Early childhood programs have long lacked the sustained funding to ensure that educators are equipped with pedagogical training and resources to help “level the playing field” for poor kids. Exacerbating the problem, severe state budget cuts have led to deep funding deficits nationwide.

Generally, the White House’s plan—which aims to achieve “common and consistent standards for quality across all programs”—does appear to promote fairer compensation and support for practitioners, including pay that is comparable to regular K-12 teachers.

But ensuring every kid in the country has a shot at a a high quality preschool program means starting earlier, with teacher training, in order to close massive gaps in the early learning workforce, which advocates say lacks the resources to maintain a well-trained, decently paid corps of educators. And that’s at current enrollment levels; unmet needs will likely soar under a universal preschool system, since currently, many eligible children are unserved because their families lack access to under-resourced public programs like Head Start. The White House’s overhaul proposal so far says little about whether Washington will reverse decades of underfunding.

If we want highly qualified staff that really understands child development and can really deliver high quality preschool, then the implementation of the proposal is definitely going to have to include some support for that workforce to be able to get those credentials and better compensation,” says Christine Johnson-Staub, an analyst with the social policy think tank CLASP.

How to nurture great early-childhood educators

From a labor perspective, the current system fails to provide real job sustainability. Early childhood educators are among the worst-paid education professionals. Unionization rates are typically low, and turnover is extremely high—especially when educators might earn far more money teaching kindergarten instead of pre-kindergarten next door. Many preschool educators are denied basic benefits that K-12 school teachers typically enjoy, such as class planning time and decent health benefits.

Advocates say that programs for early childhood development are often viewed simplistically as caregiving work, rather than as a critical part of a child’s education. That contributes to the low salaries and leads to a patchwork credentialing system and widely varying budgets. According to a 2009 analysis of the early childcare and education (ECE) workforce by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California, Berkeley:

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Working Women’s Bodies Besieged by Environmental Injustice

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Originally posted at In These Times.

From birth control pills to equal pay, women are a favorite target in the country’s most heated political wars. But a much quieter struggle is being waged over women’s bodies in their neighborhoods and workplaces, where a minefield of pollutants threaten working mothers and their children.

According to new research from the the National Birth Defects Prevention Study, working pregnant women who are exposed on the job to toxins known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to have children with gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines stick out from the baby’s body, generally requiring surgical repair.

The study, summarized by Environmental Health News, reveals a distinct link between women’s occupational exposure and the prevalence of the defect: “mothers who were exposed to PAHs had 1.5 times the risk of having a baby with gastroschisis compared to women who were not exposed to PAHs at work.” Read the rest of this entry →

Children of Immigrants Targeted by Tax Warfare in Congress

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Evan Finn / Creative Commons

The fundamental injustice of the tax system grows clearer as tax day looms ominously over working people and a few horde more and more of the nation’s wealth. Short of a total collapse of capitalism, the primary redistributive remedy for this would be progressive taxation. But our tax policy gets it exactly backward, and it’s about to get a bit worse. And as with so many wars of attrition against the working class, this one begins by shafting disenfranchised communities, especially immigrants.

While the rich are rolling in tax giveaways, a few credits actually give poor folks a break. One of these, the refundable child tax credit (CTC), applies to middle-class and poor parents alike and was claimed by some 21 million taxpayers in 2011, “which averaged about $676 per child and totaled $26.1 billion,” according to Politico. For poor families, the CTC, together with its big sister the Earned Income Tax Credit, provides a lifeline to keep them from plunging below the poverty line.

Now some lawmakers advocate cutting off the child tax credit for tax filers who lack of Social Security number. The move is unabashedly aimed at making life harder for undocumented workers, even taxpaying ones, specifically by punishing their children.

Currently, the CTC is one federal tax benefit that people can claim using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a social security number. This effectively makes it available to undocumented workers—those who lack formal authorization.

The debate centers on whether children of undocumented workers, who are in many cases U.S.-born, should have the same modest benefits afforded to other working families. According to the First Focus Campaign for Children, the policy “could raise taxes on the families of more than 5.5 million children, including 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens.” Children of immigrants are disproportionately Latino and poor, with an estimated two in five poor children growing up in the Latino community.

In addition to being cruel toward immigrant families in general, the proposal is inlaid with the pernicious stereotypes of children of undocumented immigrants, who have been demonized as “anchor babies.” In fact, the canard of immigrant hordes procreating in hopes of using US-born kids as a springboard toward legalization is a myth peddled by anti-immigrant groups to stoke Malthusian demographic panic. But hey, an election year means open season on immigrants and endless bloviating about securing the border. Undocumented workers and other immigrants who cannot vote (despite being breadwinners and taxpayers for their families) can only watch as xenophobic spew greases the campaign trail. Read the rest of this entry →

States Attempt to Instill ‘Work Ethic’ by Rolling Back Child Labor Protections

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Spinner in Whitnel, NC (Photo: Lewis Hine)

Cross-posted in The Nation.

It’s been a long time since the engines of American industry were driven by tiny fingers. So when Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, “Young people ought to learn how to work,” and suggested that children could develop a strong work ethic by working as janitors in their own schools, many Americans probably missed the throwback to the early twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of children toiled in factories. But after decades of campaigns against youth exploitation, the right is rekindling vestiges of the sweatshop era with legislation aimed at rolling back child labor laws.

While they didn’t go so far as to recruit tweens back to the factory floor, throughout 2011 state legislators pushed bills to erode regulation of youth employment. Maine Republicans sought to ease protections for young workers with amicably named legislation to “Enhance Access to the Workplace by Minors.” The original bill, introduced by State Representative David Burns, would remove some limits on working hours for teenagers and expand the number of days a youth under 20 could work for $5.25 an hour—to about half a year. That would be a bargain for employers, who pay adult Mainers a minimum wage of $7.50. Last summer, a more limited teen labor bill passed, which only eased restrictions on working hours.

Dismissing his bill’s critics in a Press-Herald commentary, Burns argued the purpose was simply to provide job-seeking youth valuable opportunities, since many “have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don’t merit the minimum wage until they learn a job.” As for government safeguards against abuse, he added, “We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state.” Read the rest of this entry →

Measuring Teacher ‘Diversity’ in a Segregated School System

12:48 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Creative Commons, evmaiden via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

Kids do most of their growing up in school, but our schools aren’t growing to meet the changing needs of their communities. And the disconnect between the education system’s capacities  and the aspirations of the kids they serve subtly illustrates the roots of the so-called “achievement gap.”

Among the litany of “failures” that politicians have identified in public education, the debate has increasingly affixed on the issue of who is teaching your kids and how they influence student achievement. A new study says one metric that reflects the divide between students’ unmet needs and the human resources of the education system is “teacher diversity.” The centrist think tank Center for American Progress argues:

At the national level, students of color make up more than 40 percent of the public school population. In contrast, teachers of color—teachers who are not non-Hispanic white—are only 17 percent of the teaching force.

This is a problem for students, schools, and the public at large. Teachers of color serve as role models for students, giving them a clear and concrete sense of what diversity in education—and in our society—looks like. A recent review of empirical studies also shows that students of color do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they’re taught by teachers of color. …

The overarching critique seems straightforward enough: Kids benefit from an educational experience that is socially and culturally reaffirming. This should include teachers they identify with.
But is statistical “diversity” really the objective? Yes, demographics matter if you want schools to be a part of, and an asset for, the community they serve. Social divides within a school amplify the social barriers outside of it. And if teachers and school administrators are isolated from the day-to-day realities students deal with, from economic hardship to violence in the home to limited English-speaking ability, school will become a pretty unwelcoming place for youth. Read the rest of this entry →

Making Sex Workers Visible in the Village Voice Media Ad Controversy

3:07 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York take to the streets. (Photos courtesy

Cross-posted from In These Times.

In a perfectly “free” labor market, everyone theoretically has the right to exchange work for commensurate compensation. But a free market is not necessarily a just one. And when the commodity is sex, how free is too free?

Sex work, and its attendant culture wars, have moved over time from traditional brothels of urban lore to online marketplaces, raising new questions about private and public freedom. In the digital world, how should trust and power be negotiated between provider and client, both encircled by systemic gender and economic inequities?

On this slippery battlefield, anti-trafficking advocates are campaigning against Village Voice Media’s Backpage, an ad portal featuring “adult” ads notorious for facilitating sexual services involving minors.

Village Voice Media’s editorial side has mounted a counterattack with reporting aimed at debunking popular myths (those familiar salacious tales of powerful men exploiting innocent youngsters). Reporter Kristen Hinman cites research on underaged prostitutes that undercuts the stereotype of the classic prostitution ring, writing that “the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp,” and that “Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.”

That doesn’t mean the sex business is squeaky clean. Critics are unconvinced that Backpage can police itself (or “cover its collective arse,” as neofeminist blogger Maggie McNeill put it). Clergy and women’s rights groups dismiss the company’s free speech defense as window dressing.

“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage,” Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights told the Daily Beast, “the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment… It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”

Sex workers agree that it’s a human rights issue. But they see the war on Backpage (and before that Craigslist) as the wrong answer to a wrong-headed question. Read the rest of this entry →

Thousands of Migrant Kids Trapped Inside the World’s Border Politics

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A 17-year-old girl looks over her shoulder in Altar, Mexico, where immigrant smuggling is pronounced.

Cross-posted from

Yolanda had barely made it to the U.S. border after being beaten and raped by smugglers on the route up from El Salvador. When border agents discovered the 16 year old, she was sent to a hospital, stripped and shackled to a bed—just as a precaution, presumably, to ensure she wouldn’t run away.

Yolanda was part of an endless stream of children on the run, attempting to enter the U.S. on their own for work, family or just personal safety. Each year, thousands of these “unaccompanied minors” risk their lives to slip through the gates, and end up falling through the cracks.

According to a 2010 article by Wendy Young and Megan McKenna, of the advocacy coalition Kids in Need of Defense, the unaccompanied youth population spans the scope of global crises: some are simply trying to get out of poverty. Others are displaced by war, or fleeing abuse, female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Some are struggling to escape local gang violence. Government data indicates that most originate from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The term “unaccompanied” tells only part of their story. Many of these kids seek to reach a parent or relative on the other side of the border. But they must travel alone, exposed to brutal conditions as well as abuse by the coyotes hired to guide them.

While many youth trying to enter from Mexico are ensnared by border police and deported straight away, others enter as undocumented immigrants. They are routed to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in a disturbingly wide range of settings, from juvenile detention to foster care.

In an assessment of immigration detention in the U.S., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently reported satisfactory conditions at the two youth facilities it visited, while voicing concern about reports of abuse of children in federal custody. Their main conclusion, however, was that under international principles of children’s rights, migrant and refugee children should not be detained at all except as a last resort.

Despite some significant reforms in recent years, the government’s treatment of unaccompanied youth is not guided by humanitarian precepts, but rather by the logistics of “warehousing” kids until their legal status is resolved. According to a 2009 report by the Women’s Refugee Commission, many unaccompanied children, after braving hell to reach the U.S., are left vulnerable to mistreatment and the crippling loneliness of institutionalization.

While it’s hard to expect the immigration bureaucracy to provide quality child care, the system has tried to make itself more kid friendly in recent years, thanks in part to legal challenges over the treatment of child detainees. But investigations by WRC, which documented Yolanda’s case among others, found that while some children were placed in decent settings like group homes, others were placed in “secure” institutions that treated them essentially like youth offenders.

Children are particularly exposed to harsh treatment when they initially arrive. In some of the interviews conducted by WRC, children describe the degrading conditions they experienced after they were first “caught” at the border:

Border Patrol agents would shout to wake them up at night, calling them dogs, spitting and giving them food the children described as moldy.

Researchers found that children initially detained by ICE authorities generally lacked basic health care and had “no systematic access to legal representation or rights presentations … and often have no guardian or advocate defending their rights or best interest.” That is, they might technically be able to access legal services, but a terrified kid stuck at a detention facility would probably have trouble understanding her basic rights, much less how to locate a free attorney.

She may have some other problems to deal with. It’s not uncommon for kids who are in custody to show signs of trauma, either from their experiences in their home countries or from the more acute hardships of their migration. According to research published in WRC’s 2009 report:

Facility staff estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of children need mental health services. Facilities reported that very high percentages of up to 50 percent of children were on psychiatric medication.

This kind of institutionalization only amplifies the trauma that young people experience trying to reach the U.S. But while countless unaccompanied minors are neglected by the system, many do have ties to American communities. A large portion are in fact eventually released to the care of family members or designated sponsors. However, ICE’s hardline enforcement strategies complicate the process of reconnecting youth with their families. Relatives may be deterred by the fear that ICE agents would “use children as ‘bait’” to lure in undocumented adults. One child’s testimony summed up the irony of the chilling effect of these tactics:

I know that I am allowed to have visitors but I have no one to visit me. My parents don’t have papers so they will not come to get me.

The byzantine legal system makes it harder for unaccompanied migrant children to reunify with family, especially when the parents are undocumented. Children typically have little or no control over how their case is handled, even though they should be able to petition independently for relief before a judge.Though they might qualify for asylum or relief as victims of trafficking, their cases are threatened by the courts’ narrow legal interpretations and general lack of legal help. Certain asylum claims, like being targeted by a gang, are especially hard to prove in court, according to Young and McKenna.

Jennifer Podkul, program officer for the Detention and Asylum Program of the Women’s Refugee Commission, told Colorlines, “The whole crux of it is that these kids are not given attorneys, and so they don’t really have a voice, they don’t really know their options, they don’t know if they have their own claim or not. And that’s probably the biggest problem, and probably the root of this confusion.”

Outside the U.S., youth who migrate alone have just as little hope of finding refuge. In some European countries, unaccompanied migrant children are extremely vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. In Australia, where anti-immigrant anxieties have surged in reaction to an influx of “boat people,” refugee kids are treated as contraband, reports The Australian:

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has signalled his concern at the steady increase in numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in Australia as an “anchor” to secure safe passage for family. Spokeswoman for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Pamela Curr says Immigration has sent letters to 15-year-old refugees in Melbourne informing them that family reunion applications will not be processed within three years. “This means they will have to stand in line in the humanitarian stream with thousands of others. Everything is now premised on deterrence,” she said.

“Deterrence” may be the endgame, but officials should understand that even the most deplorable conditions wouldn’t stem the flow of desperate migrants fleeing economic devastation, death or torture. And any child who arrives alone isn’t going to get turned around easily.

Not girls like Yolanda, who discovered she was pregnant as the result of getting raped on her way to the border. Her journey was a one-way trip.