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President Obama walks with 2016 teacher of the year Shanna Peeples.
President Obama with 2015 teacher of the year Shanna Peeples.
Every year, each state chooses its teacher of the year. This year, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic surveyed those outstanding teachers about their jobs, and it's worth paying attention to what they have to say about the barriers their students face and where they'd direct education funding.

Asked what barriers to learning their students face that affect academic success the most, 76 percent of the teachers said family stress, 63 percent said poverty, and 52 percent said learning and psychological problems.

“Those three factors in many ways are the white elephant in the living room for us in education,” said Jennifer Dorman, Maine’s 2015 Teacher of the Year who teaches special-education classes for seventh- and eighth-graders. “As teachers, we know those factors present huge barriers to our students’ success. Helping students cope with those three factors is probably the most important part of my job. But on a national level, those problems are not being recognized as the primary obstacles.”
In line with the 63 percent who said poverty was a top barrier to student success, anti-poverty initiatives were the top answer the teachers gave when asked to choose three areas where they'd focus school funding to have the greatest impact on student learning—48 percent chose anti-poverty initiatives, while 37 percent chose early learning and 35 percent chose reducing barriers to learning (which would include poverty, obviously).

Nearly all of the teachers said that higher standards would have a positive effect on student learning. But "accountability/assessments"—the buzzwords for standardized testing—ranked dead last on the list of ways teachers would focus school funding.


Amtrak train
House Speaker John Boehner may think it's "stupid" to suggest that the recent fatal Amtrak crash had anything to do with lack of funding, but the evidence keeps piling up that Boehner's the stupid one here. The United States spends far less than its peers on rail, and:
As a consequence, industry experts say, despite having some of the least-extensive passenger rail networks in the developed world, the United States today has among the worst safety records. Fatality rates are almost twice as high as in the European Union and countries like South Korea, and roughly triple the rate in Australia.

Analysts say the impressive safety record in Europe and Asia is the result of steady government spending of billions of dollars on development and maintenance of railroad infrastructure — including sophisticated electronic monitoring and automated braking systems developed over the past 20 years.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, the American investment in rail networks is just a quarter of that in Britain and one-sixth that in France and Australia, while Japan spends nearly three times as much per person as the U.S. does.
Over the past decade, even developing countries including India, Russia and Turkey have consistently invested far greater shares of their G.D.P. on rail.
Not exactly grounds for a "We're number one" chant, there.

We're looking at a consequence of Republican refusal to invest in American infrastructure. It's played out not just in less safe trains but in slower trains and fewer trains. If Republicans hadn't stood in the way all these years, we could have had a speedy, energy-efficient, safe rail network and thousands of jobs creating and maintaining it. Instead, we have a desperately underfunded, inadequate rail system and John Boehner saying it's stupid to see the facts for what they are.

Labor organizations oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Trade deal in a rally outside of the Capitol in May 2014.
The Senate advanced fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Thursday. It's still most definitely worth turning a critical eye to the deal, as the Economic Policy Institute's Josh Bivens does in a takedown of a recent New York Times article by Binyamin Appelbaum:
First, on the gains from trade policy (i.e., how much we should expect national income to rise if we sign trade agreements), Appelbaum refers to a piece from the Peterson Institute of International Economics claiming that trade liberalization added 7.3 percent of GDP to American incomes by 2005—about $9000-10,000 per American household. This is just not true. It’s a wildly inflated number that should not be in the policy debate (and if you need much smarter and better-credentialed people making the some point—here’s Dani Rodrik). This number is an effort to bully people into going along with today’s trade agreements by making them think the stakes are utterly enormous. In fact, even if it was correct (again, it’s not) this study would be irrelevant to today’s trade policy debates because the sum total of economic gains from all post-1982 trade agreements (this includes NAFTA, the completion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the formation of the WTO, and the permanent normal trading relations with China) is estimated to be just $9 per household, meaning that  99.9 percent of the gains from trade estimated in the study happened before 1982. So even if trade liberalization really did spur mammoth gains at some point in the (distant) past, the effects were over by the early 1980s.

Second, on the distribution of gains and losses from trade, it is striking to me that so many economists who favor signing every trade agreement that comes down the pike can still feign surprise that expanded trade seems to be bad for most workers’ wages. Put simply, it is completely predicted in textbook trade economics that wages for most workers will fall and inequality will rise when the United States trades more with poorer trading partners. Yes, expanded trade is predicted to lead to higher overall national income, but it is also predicted to redistribute enough income within the United States that it can (and is likely to) make most workers worse-off. This should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the topic.

Of course, there are things that shouldn't be a surprise and things that are actively covered up.

Continue reading below the fold for more of the week's labor and education news.

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Map showing how many hours per week you'd need to work at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment, paying no more than 30% of income for housing costs.
Click map to enlarge
Minimum wage increases passed by cities and states around the country are great news for low-wage workers—but the news isn't good enough. As a new report (PDF) from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows, even those higher minimum wages are mostly not high enough for a worker to afford an average two-bedroom apartment on 40 hours a week of work without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Nationally:
The 2015 Housing Wage is $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit, and $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit. The Housing Wage for a two-bedroom unit is more than 2.5 times the federal minimum wage, and $4 more than the estimated average wage of $15.16 earned by renters nationwide.
While housing costs and the minimum wage both vary by state, the news doesn't get much better if you drill down:
In no state can an individual working a typical 40-hour workweek at the federal minimum wage afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment for his or her family. In fact, with the exception of a handful of counties in Washington and Oregon (where the state minimum wage is $9.47 and $9.25, respectively), there is no county in the U.S. where even a one-bedroom unit at the FMR is affordable to someone working fulltime at the minimum wage.
Rents, unlike the minimum wage, "have risen nationally for 23 straight quarters. As of the third quarter of 2014, rents were 15.2% higher than at the tail end of the Recession in 2009." While high rents are a problem most visible in urban areas like New York and San Francisco, rural renters face challenges, too.

Thu May 21, 2015 at 03:00 PM PDT

Daily Kos Labor digest

by Laura Clawson

Sign saying united we bargain divided we beg
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) takes part in a roundtable of young Nevadans discussing immigration as she campaigns for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nevada May 5, 2015.   REUTERS/Mike
Some enterprising reporters have moved on, as New Hampshire's Dean Barker observes, from asking why Hillary Clinton isn't talking to political reporters to asking why she isn't talking to "regular people." The Boston Globe's Annie Linskey, for instance, quotes a liberal radio host, the chairman of a county Democratic Party, and a political science professor to make the point that Clinton hasn't yet held a campaign event open to all comers in New Hampshire. In short, so far this cycle she hasn't participated in the theater of the town hall meeting, of which the Globe's James Pindell wrote:
... for the most part, from now until when voters pay attention this fall, these events are dominated by special interest groups that want to be part of the presidential primary show.

These days, it’s not uncommon for people to get paid to follow candidates around the state, repeating the same questions at each stop — sometimes accounting for as many as half of the inquiries.

Linskey's take is that Clinton isn't making herself available to hear from voters ... but already in this campaign, Clinton has decided to focus on heroin addiction after voters in New Hampshire and Iowa told her it was a problem needing more attention. She's had a serious, fruitful discussion of immigration with activists. All the signs are that she's listening and responding—yes, often to people chosen for their interest in specific areas, but is talking to people with personal experience and longtime focus on specific, important topics necessarily less valuable than answering any and every question that comes her way now, first, right away? Even if the person asking it is being paid to do so at five political events a day?

Why is that more real and valuable than, say, the childcare workers Clinton met with at a roundtable this week? That gave her the opportunity to hear stories like that of Patricia Bailey, a Washington state daycare provider and SEIU member who makes less than her state's minimum wage by the time she's done covering expenses and offering discounts to families that can't afford to pay for child care; you can see video of Bailey below the fold.

Women working long hours for low wages are unlikely to be able to attend however many big-audience events it would take to be called on to ask a candidate a question, and those who don't live in early primary states don't even have the chance. But these women's stories are important for a candidate to hear—especially a candidate focused, as Clinton has promised to be, on things like paid family leave—and we shouldn't dismiss them because it's their union that got them into an event where Clinton would have time to listen and talk to them. Creating worker strength through numbers is what unions are for, and if that's what it takes to make a presidential candidate listen, it's not less real or important than the concerns of people who live in New Hampshire and Iowa and have the leisure time to attend open-to-the-general-public events held during working hours.

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McDonald's worker with a sign made to look like a paycheck to an
McDonald's workers are once again rallying ahead of the company's shareholder meeting, boosting their call for $15 an hour pay and the right to join a union. There was no ignoring the protest Wednesday:
McDonald's shut down a restaurant near its headquarters Wednesday after the area was swamped by hundreds of protesters calling for pay of $15 an hour and a union.

The restaurant was closed because of traffic concerns, said Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a spokeswoman for McDonald's. The company also told employees in a building targeted by protesters they should work from home, she said.

McDonald's has only made a weak token gesture toward raising worker pay, saying it would raise wages in the small percentage of stores operated directly by the company, then using that to boost its case that McDonald's is not responsible for wages and working conditions in stores operated by franchisees. But the low-wage worker movement for $15 pay has had a big national impact, with the Los Angeles city council having voted this week to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. Los Angeles follows Seattle and San Francisco in passing such a law, while other cities like Chicago and Oakland have raised their minimum wages above the levels passed by any state government to this point.

Tue May 19, 2015 at 03:00 PM PDT

Daily Kos Labor digest

by Laura Clawson

Signs at a rally. Solidarity in foreground, stop the war on workers in background.
  • Five ways to help nail salon workers. Better than swearing off manicures now while the subject is on your mind, then slinking back later and tipping a little extra out of guilt.
  • An oil refinery strike continues in Texas, where:
    The stoppage at the Galveston Bay Refinery has become especially bitter as the union said the company was pushing proposals that would eliminate job security and roll back safety policies put in place after an explosion that killed 15 workers in 2005, when the plant was owned by BP Plc.
  • This is creative! A union representation vote at a Detroit charter school chain is left unresolved in part because school officials insist that Teach for America teachers shouldn't be included in the vote. They can teach there, but they don't count as teachers for the purposes of organizing, according to administrators.
  • Pearson has lost most of its testing contract with Texas, but Diane Ravitch has some questions about the whole situation.
  • Workers Independent News report for May 19, 2015:

Demonstrators take part in a protest to demand higher wages for fast-food workers outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California May 15, 2014. The march was held as part of an international protest by fast-food workers who planned to go on strikes in 150 c
Los Angeles is becoming the third major American city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, with the city council approving the increase by a 14 to one vote. Seattle and San Francisco have already passed increases that will raise the wage to $15 over time, but:
The impact is likely to be particularly strong in Los Angeles, where, according to some estimates, more than 40 percent of the city’s work force earns less than $15 an hour. [...]

Tuesday’s vote could set off a wave of minimum wage increases across Southern California, and the groups pressing for the increases say the new pay scales would change the way of life for the region’s vast low-wage work force.

Indeed, much of the debate here has centered on the potential regional impact. Many of the low-wage workers who form the backbone of Southern California’s economy live in the suburban cities of Los Angeles. Proponents of the wage increase say they expect that several nearby cities, including Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Pasadena, would follow Los Angeles’ lead and pass ordinances for higher wages in the coming months.

The minimum wage will go up slowly in Los Angeles, not hitting $15 until 2020 for larger businesses, with businesses employing 25 or fewer people having until 2021 to reach $15. It's ridiculously slow, but it's something to build on.

Slow or not, the fact that the second-largest city in the U.S. is moving toward $15 an hour is another sign of the power of worker organizing. And $15 an hour is not a number that comes from politicians, it's a number that comes from worker organizing, from demands that were seen as outlandishly high when fast food workers first hit the streets in November 2012. But now it's becoming a reality, and Tuesday's city council vote in Los Angeles will help apply pressure to other city and state governments to raise their minimum wage targets.

The DuPont chemical plant is seen in LaPorte, Texas, 26 miles (42 km) from downtown Houston, November 17, 2014.   Medical personnel had to wait hours to retrieve four dead bodies after a hazardous chemical leak at a unit of a DuPont and Co plant in LaPorte because they were not trained to use the proper safety equipment, the company said on Monday.   REUTERS/Erwin Seba  (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS DISASTER INDUSTRIAL) - RTR4EHJI
Last fall, four workers were killed by a gas leak in a Texas DuPont plant. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has investigated and concluded that:
Those workers “would be alive today had their employer, DuPont, taken steps to protect them,” according to the release announcing the end of the investigation. “Four people lost their lives and their families lost loved ones because DuPont did not have proper safety procedures in place,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. “Had the company assessed the dangers involved, or trained their employees on what to do if the ventilation system stopped working, they might have had a chance.”
What's the penalty for four lives lost and 11 safety violations, nine of them serious? A whopping $99,000—plus the "scores of safety upgrades the company must undertake to prevent future accidents." But with penalties like that and a plant that had last been inspected in 2007 before these deaths, DuPont doesn't have enormous incentives to follow through. Why would we expect companies to invest in safety when they know the penalties for killing workers will be so low?
Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker addresses his supporters at a rally on election night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Sara Stathas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR4CVJ0
Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI)
Scott Walker got a little bit of side-eye from CBS's Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation Sunday over Walker's insistence that the most important foreign policy decision of his lifetime was Ronald Reagan firing striking air traffic controllers. But Walker showed what he must think is presidential firmness in sticking with his original ludicrous position.

Schieffer asked:

Don't you think there may have been a few things while I agree that that was a significant development, a few things maybe a little more important like the Nixon's opening to China, for example, the decision to go after Osama bin Laden. Do you really think that was the most significant foreign policy statement of your lifetime?
Acknowledging that "those were all important things," Walker nonetheless went on to insist that:
“I came of age during the Reagan administration. I was I think I believe just turned 13 two days before his election in 1980. And for me, looking at that kind of leadership, he set the tone, not just domestically with that action; he sent a message around the world as – as you just read off, I think not only to our allies, this is – was someone who was serious that that could be trusted. But in combination with our adversaries, they sent a clear message, not to mess with him.”
Of course it's in Walker's interest to have domestic union-busting be seen as The Single Most Important Policy Possible, since it's his signature policy. But ... really? Steve Benen highlights a few other things he might have chosen:
Walker was born in 1967, which means his “lifetime” includes a wide variety of foreign policy decisions from U.S. officials: two wars in Iraq, a series of START treaties, Nixon going to China, the end of the war in Vietnam, the Camp David Accords, the war in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iran/Contra, the U.S. role in negotiating the Northern Ireland peace process, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the Iranian hostage crisis, etc.
But nothing shows resolve like hurting American workers, apparently. It's quite a promise for a Walker presidency.
Graph showing unemployment and underemployment rates of recent college graduates over time, spiking as a result of the recession and still remaining elevated despite improvement since then.
The good news is that recent high school and college graduates looking for work aren't as screwed as they were a few years ago. The bad news is that they're still kinda screwed.
... the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent for young college graduates and 19.5 percent for young high school graduates. Although these rates have come down from the peaks after the Great Recession, they are still elevated above their 2007 levels (5.5 percent for college grads and 15.9 percent for high school grads), which were already high compared to the more favorable rates seen in 1995-2000. The Class of 2015 joins a sizable backlog of unemployed college graduates from the last six graduating classes (the classes of 2009–2014) in a difficult job market. [...]

The underemployment rate is 14.9 percent for young college graduates and 37.0 percent for young high school graduates. These numbers are elevated compared to their 2007 levels (9.6 percent for college grads and 26.8 percent for high school grads), which is a sign that many young graduates either want a job but have simply given up looking for work, or have a job that does not provide the hours they need. Underemployment remains particularly high compared to its pre-recession levels. The ratio of the underemployment to unemployment is near the highest it’s ever been for young high school graduates and college graduates, (1.9 and 2.1, respectively).

Congratulations! You've got your diploma, the future is yours, and all those other commencement platitudes. Now go climb over your peers and un- or under-employed graduates of the past five years in the chase for the shrinking number of good jobs out there.

Continue reading below the fold for more of the week's labor and education news.

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