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Young Teachers Deserve Retirement Protections, Too

September 24th, 2014

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How does it feel to lose $11,000 and know you’ll never get it back? This past week I discovered that I lost just that amount in retirement savings because like roughly half of America’s young teachers, I taught for fewer than five years.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, made a startling admission on a recent segment of “Morning Joe.” She said fighting teacher tenure laws was pointless because most teachers in American classrooms today have less than two years of teaching experience. While that figure is a slight exaggeration toward the low end, Weingarten is right in recognizing that the teaching profession looks drastically different — and newer — from before.

Despite this, most teachers still find themselves paying into a pension system that is a relic left from a time when educators stayed in the same job in the same place for an entire career. Teachers in most states receive defined benefit pensions that are based on a backloaded formula that factors in salary and years of service: teachers receive minimal benefits in their early years, but are rewarded quickly and heavily as they near retirement age. The rules of these defined benefit plans reward longevity and punish mobility — even mobility within the profession between school districts or states. It works if you stay in one place and keep teaching, but doesn’t if you switch careers or move out of state, which is what I did.

When I left a Los Angeles Unified School District classroom after three years and moved to Washington, D.C., I learned that three years of employer contributions to my retirement became three years of donations to someone else’s. Since California requires five years of teaching to vest in a pension (19 states require 10 years), I was only entitled to recoup the 8 percent annual contribution that was deducted from my paycheck each pay period. I was forced to cede back to the pension program the 8.25 percent of annual contributions that were made — ostensibly on my behalf by my employer — an amount totaling more than $11,000. Invested very conservatively, this money would be worth at least $35,000 when I get ready to retire one day — but realistically several times that based on historical returns or what state pension funds expect to earn.

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A Promising New Approach on Assault Weapons

September 12th, 2014

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Just four months after 20 students and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15-style Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, 60 Senators voted down an amendment to ban assault weapons. It was a heartbreaking moment for many of us. For decades, advocates in the gun safety movement have held up the assault weapons ban as a standard, the marker by which they measure any progress. And it was the first piece of legislation most Americans called to mind in the days after Sandy Hook—it seemed unimaginable that in less than 5 minutes, 154 bullets were fired and 26 innocents were left dead. But if in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in American history, an assault weapon ban was still out of reach, what does that say about its future? After all, no one thinks the Senate is going to get any bluer after the elections in November.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that an assault weapons ban can’t pass anytime soon—in fact, to many it could feel akin to admitting defeat. But today, the Center for American Progress (CAP) courageously released a new report that did just that, and by doing so, they have reframed the debate, turning attention to a whole new set of policies that have an exponentially greater chance of enactment and would greatly reduce gun violence—including violence perpetrated by assault weapons. The report, Assault Weapons Revisited: Policy Options for Regulating Rifles, Shotguns, and Other Firearms 20 Years After the Passage of the Assault Weapons Ban, recognizes the limits of our current politics, but instead of conceding the issue, it offers a smart new framework for regulating some of the most dangerous guns in America. The current political impracticality of a ban does nothing to diminish widespread support for other gun safety policies that can save lives if we approach the problem differently, and they offer 6 specific ways to do so:

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No One Likes a Frontrunner

August 21st, 2014

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“No one likes a frontrunner, especially Democrats” a grassroots activist at Netroots Nation told Politico. That’s certainly true. Remember John Glenn in 1984? Howard Dean in 2004? Hillary Clinton in 2008?

It’s Republicans who have a tradition of nominating whoever is next in line. Every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater had run for President or vice president before. With one exception–George W. Bush. But his name was Bush, so he got a pass. Democrats have a tradition of plucking candidates out of obscurity: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

If Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, she may defy the Democratic tradition. She is the prohibitive frontrunner, at least in the polls. No one else comes close. But will she really coast to the nomination? It looks more and more likely that Clinton will be seriously challenged from the left, by a candidate TBD.

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Why not growth?

August 4th, 2014

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Democrats’ intense focus on income inequality is understandable, but why not the same obsession over economic growth?

From 2001 to 2013, a span of thirteen years, average annual growth in the United States came out to a lumbering 1.8 percent. That is half the average annual growth rate we experienced from 1950 to 2000 —a period during which the middle class shined and the poverty rate declined.

Yes, the Great Recession contributed to substandard growth rates, but since 2001, the U.S. economy has exceeded 3 percent growth only twice. In the half century prior, we surpassed 3 percent growth per year 34 times. What was once “normal” growth is now a rarity.

Economists predict that America’s future growth rate will settle somewhere between mediocre and sickly. The Congressional Budget Office projects an average of 2.5 percent annual growth over the next ten years, while PricewaterhouseCoopers projects an average of 2.4 percent growth through 2020. Middling growth like that just won’t make an appreciable difference in the lives of average working people.

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R.I.P Isolationism

July 18th, 2014

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The foreign policy civil war inside the Republican Party is spilling onto the op-ed pages. The latest battle began Friday when Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to brand Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as an isolationist for Paul’s stance on Iraq. The senator was quick to reject the label.

Why was the senator so eager to dodge the isolationist moniker? Because it’s electoral kryptonite with the American public, whom, despite what you may have heard, do not support isolationism. Americans are not asking for a retreat from the world. They’re a pragmatic public that’s rejecting neo-conservative interventionism, but they’re also opportunistic, engaging and diplomatic. And, they’re looking to Washington for a foreign policy that matches those traits. Read the rest of this entry »

Teachers Deserve More than a Free Burrito

June 27th, 2014

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“Thank you Mrs. Mullinax for recognizing my unique talents and making me feel special.”

Another school year is coming to a close, and thousands of statements just like this are flooding the internet as politicians and school officials remind us to #ThankATeacher. Each year before classes end, Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around with the intent of showering teachers with the praise, acknowledgement, and freebies they rightfully deserve. Chipotle was even offering teachers free burritos.

But the fact that our society has to make a concerted effort once a year to appreciate teachers should be a telling sign that we don’t value teaching as the challenging and demanding profession that it actually is. And even though a feel-good Twitter campaign might raise the profile of teaching for one week each year, it does nothing to address the outdated policies currently keeping our high-achieving Millennials from entering the profession.

In order to truly advance the profession, we need to muster the political will to finally revisit the outdated policies that treat teachers as interchangeable “widgets,” fail to attract top-tier candidates, and push excellent teachers out the door every year. The most significant way we can honor our teachers is to modernize the profession so that it meets the needs and challenges of a 21st century career, through a major revamp to the way we recruit, prepare, and promote teachers.

First, we must make a determined effort to raise the bar of entry into the profession. We know there is a problem when a bulk of our teacher prep programs have such low standards that they accept almost every single applicant and, even worse, are able to churn out hundreds of thousands of teachers each year in part on the taxpayer’s dime without having to show any real measures of accountability in return. Not surprisingly given this backdrop, high-achieving Millennials in a new Third Way poll saw the education major as a joke, with only 9% labeling it “very difficult” (more than a quarter of those who said the same about nursing) and only 37% saying those who pursue it are “smart”—not exactly a strong casting call for our top-performing grads to enter the profession.

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