Monday, November 24, 2008

Returning Education to Our Prisons Improves Lives in Manhattan

New York State and the rest of the United States became addicted to incarceration in the 1990's while simultaneously becoming infatuated with increasing the level of punishment for those convicted of crimes and even for those who had already finished their time in prison. The desire to amplify the punishment levels led to massive reductions in educational opportunities for those who are incarcerated, loss of education funding options for those out of prison, and direct barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals seeking employment.

The leadership at the national level and the leadership here in New York State must find the financial firepower and the political will to create increased quantities of higher education opportunities within our prisons and to lower the barriers to lawful employment for those previously incarcerated.

A Population Boom in the Prisons

During 1990's, the number of U.S. residents incarcerated per 100,000 residents ballooned from 461 to 703 after being only 209 in 1980 and at or below approximately 200 for the 80 years prior to 1980. See Page 4 -

Ironically, the more than tripling of the rate of incarceration corresponds to a period of reduced crime rates. From 1980 to 2000, the violent crime rate in the United States dropped from 597 per 100,000 population to 507. Nonviolent crimes per 100,000 population dropped from 5,353 to 3,618 during that same period. Since 2000, the crime rates have continued to drop, while prison populations have finally started to level off.

A Funding Bust in Educating Those in Prison

The Crime Bill of 1994 eliminated Pell Grants for higher education in prison. It was part of a package of changes at the federal level that increased the penalties for a laundry list of crimes and created new federal crimes in areas that had traditionally been left for the states. The elimination of Pell Grants put pressure on prison budgets to fund higher education without federal help, and a race to the bottom began.

In 1995, New York State ended the practice of allowing those who are incarcerated in New York State prisons to take advantage of the Tuition Assistance Program. The combination of the loss of federal funding through Pell Grants and the loss of state funding through the Tuition Assistance Program essentially eliminated higher education within the New York State prison system.

Thankfully, one party unassociated with the New York State government's anti-education approach stepped in to attempt to fill part of the gap created by elimination of the governmental role in the education of those incarcerated in NYS prisons. Bard College established the Bard Prison Initiative in the aftermath of the 1995 decision regarding the Tuition Assistance Program. The Bard Prison Initiative runs college education programs in four New York State prisons and serves more than 100 incarcerated students on the path to receiving associates and bachelors degrees. It is an excellent example of how the private and non-profit sector can demonstrate the value of activities which the government should replicate and implement on a much larger scale. In this case, they remind us how much opportunity we have lost around our state since 1995.

As 2009 emerges over the horizon, New York State has a governor who understands the devastating impact that high incarceration rates have on communities and neighborhoods. He also understands that communities must prepare to welcome back those who have been incarcerated for years but who have been denied the opportunity to make the most productive use of their years in prison by investing in their own education.

At the federal level, the incoming President of United States represented an area not unlike Governor Paterson's former State Senate district when President Elect Obama was a State Senator in Illinois. These two chief executives have the benefit of first hand knowledge of the fact that our inadequate educational infrastructure leads to larger prison populations and that the best way to ensure that those leaving prison do not return is to fill the years of incarceration with educational opportunities. With that first hand knowledge, they will have the obligation to use their new-found power and authority to attempt to return higher education to the prisons of New York State and to all of the United States.

Higher Education in Prisons Benefits All of Us

All of us benefit when those who are incarcerated are able to invest in their own education. Crime is reduced, and recidivism rates are reduce as a result.

Studies have shown that recidivism rates are cut nearly in half when incarcerated individuals are beneficiaries of higher education. And, those studies have shown that the greater the level of education, the lower the likelihood of that individual returning to prison.

Former prisoners need jobs in order to be productive contributors to our society. With all of the enormous barriers they already face, achievements in higher education are an necessary piece of giving these individuals real hope of making good lives for themselves. That hope helps reduce crime and makes all of us safer. It makes the prisons themselves safer, and it will help us improve our economy, increase the number of taxpayers we have in New York State, and drive down the costs we all pay to house our fellow citizens in our state's prisons.

Our elected leaders must make the changes necessary to bring that hope back to our prison population, and we must demand that they do so.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Manhattan Funds the Obama Victory

While it has only been a bit less than two weeks since the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States, it seems that months have passed. Controversies with the Bush Administration have emerged and subsided. Potential appointees' names have been floated, debated, rejected, and confirmed. The President Elect's advisers have suggested a wave of executive orders immediately after the inauguration, and they have then denied that they made any decisions regarding executive orders. The joy and exuberance unleashed by the election results have not subsided, and there will be time after the inauguration to look back at the transition for symbolism, for how it set the right the tone for the nation, for how quickly it kicked into full gear, and for how (of course) mistakes were made. But, it already feels like months have passed.

With two weeks of perspective, we Manhattanites can take renewed pride in our role in the election of the 44th President of the United States. We were amongst the largest sources of financial fire power for the Democratic Nominee for the Presidency in 2008, and that fire power made a huge difference in the outcome of the election.

Manhattan Led the Way to the Obama Victory

The New York City metro area was the top geographic contributor to Barack Obama's Presidential campaign, and New York State was the second largest state in terms of financial support for the next President as he funded his historic journey to the White House. Only California, with its far larger population, was a larger portion of Obama's campaign cash.

Six of the top 10 largest zip codes in the United States in terms of contributions to the Obama campaign were Manhattan zip codes. We led the way for the entire nation, and while each of the other boroughs had several zip codes that gave more money to McCain than to Obama, Manhattan was pure, with every zip code overwhelmingly favoring Obama in terms of dollars contributed (the one exception is zip code 10020, which has almost no population but did indeed support McCain more than Obama in dollars during the last election cycle).

Manhattan was powerful and unified in its support for the Obama campaign. We need to remain aggressively supportive in the governing phase, and we need to remain united behind the belief that progressive leadership in Washington, DC will improve our lives here in Manhattan.

Biggest Share of the Biggest Donors

Of the top 20 largest institutions represented by contributors to the Obama campaign, 7 were Manhattan institutions. In nearly all cases, the donors were employees of these Manhattan institutions. On that list were Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Columbia, Skadden Arps, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Time Warner.

There is good reason to be proud of our borough and how it helped give the President Elect the wings he needed to soar above his opponent and reshuffle the electoral map. If there were a prize for most valuable county in this presidential race, the winner would be Manhattan, and we are not arrogant to expect (perhaps, even to demand) that our county will be treated with the respect it deserves by the new administration. We are the world's political capital and the world's financial capital, and, for Barack Obama, we provided the financial capital to make history.

Photos of Victory

I found the election night photos of President Elect Obama, Vice President Elect Biden and their families arresting and poignant. It is easy to be cynical and skeptical in the 21st Century, and the 44th President is a flawed human being like all of us, but the controlled joy and earnest sense of determination that one sees in the election night behind-the-scenes photos of the November 4, 2008 victory tell me that a special and elevated level of inspired (and inspiring) leadership is at hand for our nation. Manhattan Viewpoint recommends these photos to all who love our great country and wish the best for our new leader.

The pictures will encourage your spirit and make you more hopeful and more committed to help our new leaders in the difficult tasks that now lay before him - no longer as a candidate, but rather as the leader of the free world.

Monday, November 10, 2008

White Out in Gifted Programs in Manhattan and in NYC

At Penn State's home football games, the fans often create a "white out" to intimidate the opposing team - all fans are asked to wear only white clothing, thereby creating an apparent envelope of a loud white sea around the football field. See the picture at the right.

As Penn State continues to benefit from the added boost of the "white out" conditions often faced by its opponents at its home games, the "white out" that is occurring in the NYC public schools' gifted program is both intimidating and terribly disappointing. The racial make-up of the 2008 to 2009 gifted and talented kindergarten class in New York City is an outrage.

Recent Changes in Gifted Admissions

In April of this year, the Chancellor announced that he wanted to make it easier for students to qualify for gifted and talented programs and that he wanted to allow schools with as few as eight qualifying students to be able to participate in such programs.

Contrary to the tone of the Chancellor's announcements and contrary to acceptable public policy, the NYC Department of Education used its new policy to reduce the number of students in gifted programs and to sharply reduced the number of Black and Hispanic children participating in the program. The number of gifted slots available to students in the highest income portions of the New York City were increased while the number available to students in lower income sections of the city were reduced.

The overall gifted program lost half of its population, and while 17% of New York City public school kindergarten students are white, 48% of those in the current gifted program for kindergarten students are white. Blacks and Hispanics make up 68% of the students in this year's kindergarten classes and only 22% of those in this years gifted and talented kindergarten programs. The Chancellor announced these changes as a mechanism for increasing the diversity in the gifted programs and for expanding participation in general in these programs. Unfortunately, the changes he implemented resulted in a breathtaking move in the wrong direction on both fronts.

Increased Applications - Decreased Enrollment

Perhaps even more troubling than the profound racial inequity of this year's gifted program admissions results is the reality that the 50% decrease in the number of students in the gifted program comes during the same time frame in which applications increased by 161%.

Whether because of extreme incompetence or because of traditional preferences for white students over Black students and Hispanic Students (and higher income students over lower income students), the NYC Department of Education has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted to administer the gifted program in a manner that creates the best opportunities for our city's children. The failures in the gifted program are part of an overall pattern of failure in the educational arena for Mayor Bloomberg and his team, and these failures serve as a backdrop to the re-election campaign of Mayor Bloomberg, who made Mayoral control of education a centerpiece of his seven years at the helm of our city.

Chancellor Klein now has an obligation to establish a plan to fix the racial balance problems and the declining enrollment problems. He should be encouraged to develop such a plan immediately to avoid a repeat of this year's fiasco.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reminiscing - Obama in Manhattan - June 2004

Americans have made a choice for President, and that choice brings back memories for me of the fundraiser that I helped lead in Summer 2004 for State Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in mid-town Manhattan.

NYS Senate Goes to the Democrats

The choice that our country made mirrors the choice that New York State has made in ending Republican control of the State Senate after nearly 70 years.

With control of the Executive Branch and both houses of the legislature in both our nation's capitol and in Albany, the time has come for Democrats to deliver for the people. No excuses, and no blaming the Republicans. The responsibility falls squarely on all progressives to improve the lives of the people in our communities through public policy and public sector initiatives. This election is the beginning of our journey rather than the end.

Skinny Guy - Funny Name

Back in 2004, most New Yorkers couldn't pronounce Obama's name. He had not yet been chosen to keynote the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, and no one was suggesting that he run for President. There were even polls that suggested that he might be defeated in the Senate race. Instead, Obama's Republican opponent withdrew from the race in a scandal, and Obama went on to win a landslide victory without real opposition. While that Senate race ended without opposition, Obama's Presidential election required him to defeat John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, two very formidable candidates, to win the Democratic nomination; he then had to defeat a war hero with a centrist record to win the Presidency. He has come a long way, and we wish him well on this new journey - leader of the Free World.

My fundraiser was a huge success; we exceeded our fundraising goal and gave our friends a chance to spend some quality time with a future US President. The text of the 2004 invitation is below - I wrote the description of the need to elect Obama to the US Senate before I met him, and after meeting him, I would have amended it to say that the US Senate needs a skinny guy with a funny name (as he described himself) to help lead the way. Thanks again to those who served as hosts in 2004; you were part of history.

Indeed, we were a part of something big, and it was far bigger than we imagined.

Gregg Walker - Sheena Wright - Marianne Camille Spraggins

Invite You to a Conversation With

Barack Obama

Democratic Nominee for US Senate, Illinois

Frank Borges, Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, Don P. Cogsville and Nadja Webb Cogsville, Willie Dennis, Wanda Felton, Hon. Harold Ford Jr., Kirsten Gillibrand, Hon. Betsy Gotbaum, Claudette Hayle, Phil Isom, Doug Lawrence, Ed Lewis, Joyce Johnson-Miller, Joel Motley, Charles Simpson, Hon. Bill Thompson

Tuesday, June 8th
8:30 am - 9:30 am
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
51 West 52nd Street
34th Floor

$1,000 to $2,000 Per Person Contribution Requested

Please RSVP to Gregg Walker at 212-XXX-XXXX or Jenny Yeager at 312-XXX-XXXX

Barack Obama has spent a lifetime fighting effectively to empower working families and the poor - as community organizer, civil rights attorney and a leader in the Illinois Senate. He has brought new ideas and approaches in pursuit of traditional Democratic ideals to make a real difference for people -- from better schools to affordable health care to criminal justice reform. The US Senate needs Barack Obama, and Barack Obama needs our support. He will be the only Black member of the US Senate after his victory, and his performance in office will make all Americans proud.

Authorized and paid for by Obama for Illinois. Candidates are required to report the name, mailing address, employer and occupation for individuals with aggregate contributions over $200 in a calendar year. Contributions to federal candidates are not deductible for income tax purposes. Corporate checks are not acceptable for federal campaigns. Contributions are limited to $2,000 per individual for each election cycle.
This material was authorized and paid for by Obama for Illinois.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Leave No Voter Behind Tomorrow

So much controversy over voting, and yet it is all so simple. Make everyone you know cast a vote tomorrow.

NYC BOE - Board of Elections

Last week, the New York City Board of Elections asked all of us to be patient during tomorrow's elections. They expect to be overwhelmed.

Also last week, the Mayor was extremely critical of the planning work done by the Board of Elections. He even insisted that the Mayor's office has been attempting (without success) to prompt the Board of Elections to address many of the problems that are anticipated. Moreover, the Mayor stated that the Board of Elections was seeking emergency funding for tomorrow's elections but would not detail for the Mayor what the funding would be used for. One cannot be sure whether the Mayor is truly outraged at the incompetence of the Board of Elections or if he just wants to set the tone for the post-election recriminations. If there is chaos in NYC at the polls tomorrow, the Mayor wants all of us to believe that he is a victim of the Board of Elections rather than the person presiding over and responsible for the chaos. He is working to ensure than no blame lands on him. At Manhattan Viewpoint, we are more focused on how we can make tomorrow as successful as possible than on who should get the blame if we fail.

After tomorrow's election, our city needs to establish a plan for the future that addresses whatever challenges are highlighted by tomorrow's events. Our Mayor will be responsible for demonstrating leadership in this area in advance of his re-election attempt in 2009, and he will not have the option of allowing the problems to persist while blaming those problems on others.

Speaking of the Mayor's 2009 re-election bid, we find it ironic that the Mayor claims to be focused on ensuring that votes are cast in large numbers and without chaos tomorrow. Implicitly, he is signalling that voting is very important. Yet, he was very comfortable proposing that the votes of the people of New York City with regard to term limits (votes occurring in 1993 and 1996) be overturned by a vote of the City Council. He will sign the bill overturning term limits and nullifying two referenda today, on the eve of an election in which we all expect the choices of the voters to be respected. In essence, the Mayor has demonstrated that he believes that voting is very important unless you vote for policies of which the Mayor does not approve. We'll have to discuss this irony in greater detail in 2009.

The Rest of the Ballot

Far too often in Presidential election years, the Presidential election overshadows the rest of the ballot. In a county like Manhattan in a state like New York, one can easily be persuaded that the winner-take-all electoral college system used to choose the President of the United States renders our votes meaningless. Some may argue that, given the New York State has no chance of selecting John McCain, the Obama margin of victory is meaningless. Indeed, the Obama campaign chose not to invest any meaningful resources in New York State, and John McCain chose the same approach for the same reason - Senator Obama will win New York State tomorrow.

However, every seat in the state senate is up for election. Every seat in the state assembly is up for election, and every seat in the US House of Representatives is up for election. Whether or not our votes for President have any real impact, we are actually more affected by the activities of officials who represent fewer constituents and who are focused on the areas where we live and work.

In 2009, we will be electing all of the top city officials and determining who holds every seat in the City Council. We can encourage everyone we know in NYC to treat 2008 as a dry run. We need heavy voter turn out (and the patience requested by the Board of Elections) in 2009.

The following year, we will be looking to re-elect David Paterson as the Governor of the State of New York and to send Chuck Schumer back to the US Senate for another six years (at least). We can familiarize ourselves with victory by participating fully in 2008.

The Opposing Point of View

Now, as we gear up for tomorrow, there are voices in the media trying to encourage us not to vote unless we consider ourselves experts on the issues and personalities at the heart of the decisions we'll make in the voting booth.

The Manhattan Viewpoint View

It has long been a cliché to many, but it is a truth that one cannot ignore. For many of us, our ancestors died to give us the right to vote. To squander that vote or to relinquish it because of inconvenience would be obscene, whether we have faith that our individual votes will shape the outcomes of elections or not. Because the 15th Amendment (1870) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were victories secured by the blood of our ancestors, every election day is a sacred day, and we show our respect for those who made our votes possible by going to the polls and by encouraging everyone we know to join us in that sacred activity - tomorrow and every election day of any sort.