President Trump’s Syrian Policy

By: Naila Rafique

Syria has suffered from a civil war for the past seven years now. This conflict has torn the country apart and attracted international attention and scorn, including from the United States, for its use of chemical weapons. All previous deliberations have been unsuccessful. To make matters complicated, the new Trump administration launched air missiles at a Syrian airfield. The Trump administration has not clarified if this was a single attack or part of a broader political strategy towards the complicated and stagnant Syria conflict.

US policies towards the Syrian conflict have thus far been unsuccessful. Former President Obama called for the resignation of Syrian President Assad in August 2011 with the signing of an Executive Order 13582. In February 2016, the United States, Russia, and Syria agreed to a cease-fire at the Geneva Peace Conference. It should be noted that other nations and organizations have implemented economic sanctions and similar procedural methods to put pressure on Assad, including The Arab League, European Union, China, and Turkey

The Trump administration has taken similar procedural methods as the Obama administration by supporting Russian-led cease-fire talks. Even though President Trump has been quiet about how exactly to deal with the Syria conflict, it is clear that the Trump Administration is not afraid to take retaliatory action. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, also mentioned, “the President retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.” Although the Trump administration has not laid out a clear strategy, it is clear that they are not afraid to take action.

Some issues that stand in the way of an effective Syria policy include the involvement of non-state actors, a lack of informational transparency, unstable strategies, and poor international public opinion. According to the US foreign policy scholar, Patrick O’Heffernan, non-state actors may range from terrorists to nongovernmental organizations (NGO) who lobby for their causes at both the domestic and international levels. In the Syrian conflict, some non-state actors are unwilling to consider a plan without the ousting of President Assad, causing a stalemate in negotiations. There needs to be a push for actors on all sides to be a part of the conversation.

There is also a need for informational transparency to encourage the policy process. Knowledge is an important dimension of power and can be an important determinate of international policy coordination. It is important for the Trump administration to increase their transparency. Furthermore, implementation and sustainability are crucial to the conflict-resolution process. Implementation is not effective if it is not sustainable. The Trump administration should pursue avenues of addressing this conflict, which yield sustainable outcomes.

Finally, international public opinion is essential to addressing this crisis. If the international actors intertwined in a crisis sense no real international support, they will be more likely to resort to more radical means to achieve freedom. Allowing the ability to achieve international support will allow civilians to be seen as individuals that need our help. International support can lead to the collection of resources urgently needed by those affected by the conflict. The Trump administration has failed to encourage sympathy towards Syrian civilians.

Policies that address the aforementioned concerns may lead to successful, sustainable, and impactful reforms in Syria. The Trump administration has been in office for more than 100 days and it is time they prioritize creating a coherent policy to help Syria.


Image Source: New York Times

The Consequences of School Voucher Programs

The recent appointment of Betsy Devos as the US Education Secretary reignited the controversial issue of school voucher programs. Proponents of vouchers, including Devos, argue that school choice increases public schools’ performance due to the competition presented by private and charter schools. However, research shows that vouchers, at best, provide mixed results for students.

Lower Student Performance

A study conducted by the Brookings Institute observes the impact of statewide voucher systems implemented in Indiana and Louisiana. The results show that a student in Louisiana ranked in the 50th percentile of math scores while in public school, but fell to the 34th percentile after one year using a voucher and attending a private school. Reading results also declined; students at the 50th percentile fell to the 46th percentile. Indiana experience similar results. Students’ scores fell from the 50th percentile to the 44th percentile in math after a year of using a voucher. These results show that private schools do not necessarily provide students a better education than public schools.

The Brookings study does show that voucher students in New York City and Washington, DC had improved reading and math scores; however, additional research supports the findings from Indiana and Louisiana. According to the National Education Association, low income students participating in a Milwaukee voucher program did not perform significantly better than their public school counterparts. In Cleveland, students attending newly established private schools via voucher programs performed at significantly lower levels than both their private and public school peers by the end of their second year.

It is important to note that although private school students historically score about 15 to 20 points higher on standardized tests than those in public school, it is not necessarily due to better teaching. High performing students often self-select into private schools, causing the increases in scores. Parents of children in low performing public schools cannot surmise that their child would perform better in a private school.

Decreased School Choices

Aside from achievement discrepancies, other obstacles exist in the voucher system. The vast majority of students in states and cities with robust voucher programs do not use them due to an array of barriers, disproving the myth that vouchers expand choices for parents. For example, the Milwaukee’s voucher program only allows for 15,000 participants, which is less than 10 percent of the city’s public school students. Only 5 percent of Cleveland students use vouchers, two-thirds of which have never attended public schools. In Florida’s statewide voucher plan, only 7 percent of schools in the state said that they would accept voucher students.

The Case for Improving Public Schools

Research shows that improving existing public schools allows for greater increases in student achievement. Milwaukee public school students who attended schools with smaller class sizes and enhanced professional development for teachers outperformed other public school students in the city and private school students. In Florida, schools that were identified as “critically low achieving” improved after two years of program redesign and increased community involvement. Additional methods that show promising results include teacher pre-service training, after school and summer programs, student health and nutrition programs, and increasing standards in math, reading, and science curricula.

Rather than harmlessly co-existing with public schools, research shows that the presence of charter schools actually harms public schools. Once schools lose students to other options via voucher programs, schools struggle to pay expenses such as utilities, maintenance, and staff. Additionally, public schools are often responsible for educating English learners and special education students, which places a large financial burden on them. Some districts, such as Nashville, Los Angeles, and Buffalo have lost between $57 million and $591 million due to the increased presence of charter schools.

School vouchers are not a saving grace for American students. Although they have been successful in some locales, existing research shows that students often stagnate or even regress once participating in a voucher program. Rather than funneling students out of public schools, local governments should improve the deficiencies in public schools so students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to receive a quality education.


Image Source: NBC News

Can We Solve World Hunger? Reflections on Global Food Security

On February 22, 2017, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres addressed a press briefing, pleading with UN member countries to help fight the humanitarian crisis that has resurfaced in North-East Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. This crisis, which has been developing for decades, is at a critical turning point and gaining international attention. Twenty million people in the Middle East and Northeast Africa are facing food insecurity, which often leads malnutrition, starvation, and death. Guterres urged members to remember, “In our world of plenty, there is no excuse for inaction or indifference.” This issue will not resolve itself and the global community needs innovative and creative solutions to address food insecurity. It is the responsibility of the current and incoming generation of world leaders devote more time and resources to combating an issue that will shape the health and stability of the growing global population.

What is the crisis?

World hunger finds itself on a list of cliché phrases that makes it into speeches and reports by organizations and speakers aiming to garner attention for their mission, or support for a larger cause. But what is world hunger?

Although there are many ways to define hunger in its literal sense, the Hunger Project describes hunger as a symptom of the problem of poverty, dependence, and inequality. This holistic understanding brings light to all parts of hunger, not just the physical aliment. Understanding that hunger is result of many underlying issues has helped improve the quality of responses to the issue, but the sense of urgency surrounding this issue has dwindled in the past few decades. The numbers show an increase in people affected by hunger and malnutrition, and a decrease in funding to help combat this issue. The UN is calling this “the greatest humanitarian crisis” since 1945.

Source: BBC 

Why is there a surge in world hunger?

Food insecurity is hitting North Africa and the Middle East the hardest. There are many factors contributing to this widespread food shortage, including some that did not exist until recently. Conflict and fighting prevent the neediest populations from accessing food because of large-scale displacements and reductions in the flow of resources. Additionally, unstable governance leaves little structure to get food to those who need it, and federal money may not make it into the hands of the people who can do the most to help. Finally, poor infrastructure, like unpaved roads and a lack of vehicles, makes the distribution of resources near impossible. The list goes on, and the situation continues to disintegrate.

This crisis is certainly on the minds of those working on food security issues on a global stage. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, a list of tasks to achieve worldwide by the year 2030, lists Goal 2 as “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” This is no small undertaking, especially because the global population is expected to grow to 9 million by 2050 and the demand for food will grow. There are ways we can work towards achieving this goal, but it will require a better understanding of the causes of food insecurity.

Reflection on the future of food security

After recently attending the 2017 NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition on Food Security, along with nearly 400 other graduate students in public policy and management from around the world, I can reflect on this global food crisis through a new understanding of the challenges we face to achieve the UN goal.

This one-day immersive computer simulation asked us to use our background in policy and administration to advance global food security by creating and implementing local and national level projects. Each hypothetical project would affect each region in different ways, but ultimately would increase or decrease our overall food security score. At the end of this experience, the largest takeaway was clear: there is no one cure for food insecurity.

Food supply and demand play a large role in the global hunger crisis, but these are affected by agricultural conditions, natural disasters, economic incentives, land area, and more. Each time we chose a project that would target one area of insecurity, it would have an unintended consequence on another area; sometimes positive and sometimes negative. As our frustrations grew, we became aware of the challenges world leaders face to solve this dilemma. Although we may not have solved world hunger that day, we were able to present a few targeted solutions based off our research and simulation:

  1. Funding of crop-specific investments and innovation: This is important to help increase the value of the crops being produced worldwide, in order to prevent disruption to production already in place. This empowers farmers to take more ownership of their crop and consider ways to produce at a higher rate through innovative techniques with less resources, or find new ways to use crops. Farmers need encouragement and incentives to produce in a more market friendly way and prevent additional waste from misuse.
  2. Diversification of Infrastructure: Every region of the world has different infrastructure needs and should be addressed in a strategic and specific way. Investments in infrastructure will make a significant difference over time and, specifically, investments in diversification will help to improve access to land and increase non-farming employment.
  3. Community Based Access: Buy-in is very important for new food security initiatives, and it is essential to include vulnerable populations, like women, families, and indigenous people. Programs that increase access to best economic practices education through community based organizations will lead to these communities being able to produce more, which in turn will increase household incomes and reduce poverty.

It is through more programs like this, and more access to resources on food security, that attention will shift to the root causes of hunger. However, change also comes down to funding. Without the appropriate amount of funding for projects in developing countries, hunger will continue to strike, and the death rates will rise. Current efforts to cut funding to global organizations that are working on behalf of the UN’s mission are concerning. Without developed countries like the United States taking a serious role in funding innovative global food projects, those countries struggling to save vulnerable communities may be without options and this crisis will continue.


Image Source: Vocative

Xenophobic Violence in South Africa

By: Ifeoluwa Olawole

As recently as February 2017, a group of anti-immigrant protesters in Pretoria, South Africa set out to protest the presence of immigrants from other parts of Africa like Nigeria, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. This protest led to the looting and ransacking of stores owned by immigrants. Between February 5 and 18, Nigerian buildings, properties, and places of worship were destroyed in a wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. This was not a first incidence of xenophobic violence in South Africa’s history. Indeed, much of the xenophobic violence can be rather quotidian in nature—an attack on a shopkeeper may be recorded by the police as just a regular robbery, for instance—and collecting accurate data on this kind of violence can be problematic. Yet it is no secret that there has been a surge in xenophobic violence since the transition to democratic governance in 1994. How then can one explain its occurrence and cause?

Hostile rhetoric and violence against immigrants shouldn’t come as a surprise to many especially given the global temperature regarding nationalism and a dislike for the other more recently. Increasing intolerance of non-citizens is no surprise in a world that includes constant demands for leaders put their countries first, executive orders prohibiting citizens of certain countries and members of certain religions, citizens voting to leave the European Union, and plans to literally build walls to keep others out. However, xenophobia didn’t just suddenly emerge in South Africa. Past events in history have paved the way for this sort of violence. Newly democratized in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party of post-apartheid South Africa, employed an intensive nation-building agenda in a bid to build cohesion and overcome cleavages from the past. This quest for national identity was successful. In 2011, 61.7 percent of South Africa would rather identify as South Africans than with their ethnic groups. However, this kind of staunch nationalism can consequentially lead to more hostility towards outsiders. Thus, violence against refugees and foreigners in South Africa reoccurs every year like clockwork, and has even surged in the past few years.

Because of South Africa’s liberal asylum policy and better standards of living than other African countries, one can see why it’s the choice of refuge for immigrants. South Africa is often seen as a safe haven for immigrants, refugees seeking asylum, and many Africans seeking better opportunities away from their home countries ridden with wars, famine or economic upheavals. In a public opinion survey of South Africa Citizens, 4 in 10 South Africans still think foreigners should not be allowed to live in South Africa. Immigration is constantly a huge challenge for the country. In 2015, an Afro-barometer survey found that more than 1 in 5 South Africans would like the government to deport all foreigners. It is all the more unfortunate that people seeking better opportunities are faced with such violence and discrimination.

Xenophobic violence against immigrants can be explained by structural and rational approaches. Structural approaches explain this phenomenon through large systems, institutions, and structures of a society, while rational approaches endorse individual maximization and/or individuals weighing the costs and benefits of a circumstance. Structural reasons, like the history of violence in South Africa, poverty, economic inequality, rising unemployment and poor public service delivery may contribute to this xenophobia. Unemployment levels in South Africa continue to surge, with about 26 percent unemployment rate. Some experts believe foreigners are just scapegoats for the grievances of South Africans, despite the fact that many immigrants actually contribute to the economy in forms of small business, and skills in demand.

Unusually, the unemployment rate for international migrants was much lower than others in a 2012 report by the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC). However, they also found that people born outside the country were far less likely to be employees than those born in South Africa; international migrants are more likely to run their own businesses and thus contribute to the economy. Further, people born in other countries “were far less likely than those born in South Africa to be employed by government.” And those employed are often employed without good benefits and formal contracts. The history of violence in the country cannot be overlooked as well. After years of apartheid struggle, South Africa still struggles with violence and has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Citizens blame foreigners for these crimes; citing Nigerians as the perpetrators of drug crimes and prostitution. Yet foreigners are victims of a substantial amount of these crimes.

A second approach for explaining this violence is the rational explanation, which suggests that political leaders incite this uproar in citizens as a strategy for political gain. One such example of political leaders inciting division is Johannesburg’s Mayor who has made controversial comments linking immigrants to criminals and asking them to leave the city.  In the same fashion, Zulu King Zwelithini asked foreigners to “pack their bags and go” as they are stealing South African jobs. Not long after Zwelithini’s divisive comments and rhetoric, violence against immigrants in Durban erupted.

Interestingly, this xenophobic violence is often not colorblind and usually targets black foreigners and immigrants. White migrants are safe. They are often seen as beneficiary to the economy, while their black counterparts are often subject to hackneyed stereotypes and prejudices. Given the aforementioned explanations, one would expect hostility and violence to be targeted towards all immigrants and not a specific sub-type. This might suggest an alternative reason, worthy of further research on the causes of xenophobic violence.

Unfortunately, the South African government isn’t doing enough to stop xenophobic violence. Few political leaders including the President have spoken out against it, and no one has been convicted of xenophobic attacks, including an incident in 2008 which led to the death of more than 60 people. Some African countries are calling for their nationals to return home, but this is seldom a solution. Instead, political leaders need to continually and consistently condemn such vicious attacks and hostility against immigrants. The police must arrest and punish offenders. Foreign ministries in South Africa and Nigeria are reportedly working together on an “early warning system” to track xenophobic attacks and prevent them. This is definitely a good start, as forums including representatives of both countries will meet every three months, but there also needs to be better records of foreign-born individuals and protection for such people. More needs to be done to ensure the proper well being of those who have been victims of such malicious attacks. Although citizens’ grievance due to socioeconomic problems is never an excuse for violence, the government must do more to improve the economy and raise the standard of living for its citizens.

Image Source: KokoFeed

Are New Education Guidelines Sweeping Vulnerable Populations Aside?

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a major piece of legislation passed with a bipartisan consensus and signed by President Obama on December 10th, 2015. The bill was intended as a replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act and made major changes to the way that states report their education plans to the federal government, how standardized tests are administered and reported, and gave a lot of power back to the states. So why is it now seeing major changes under Betsy DeVos and her new Department of Education? Ultimately it is an unsurprising move that is consistent with the Trump administration’s priorities of removing regulations that it views as harmful or overly restrictive. What we should be concerned with is how schools must now report data relevant to vulnerable school populations.

Broadly, the new guidelines for state education plans simply require less, but an interesting point of wonkish concern relates to how the states are now required to report their testing data. The ESSA requires states to test students less than No Child Left Behind, but standardized tests are still administered in critical subjects like math and reading, and the data is used much less punitively. Previously, when reporting testing data to the federal government, states were required to break out testing data for vulnerable student groups if their populations were over a certain size. “Vulnerable students” are groups such as English as a Second Language (ESL) learners or special education students.

The ESSA did not set a minimum size for these groups, but it did provide guidelines for the maximum size states could use, which was set to 30. This means that states could choose any n-size they wanted under 30, as long as they used valid statistical methodology to do so, and anything over 30 was considered invalid unless they could provide good reasoning for doing so.

To link this figure to actual implications, consider you are running a school. At your school, you have 25 ESL learners and you are not serving them well. Under previous guidelines, their testing data would likely be reported separately, allowing the federal government to act to protect and serve them better. Under the new guidelines, the state can set the observation/ N size to 30, 35, or 40, and their data stays hidden with the rest of the students. This matters for two reasons. First, vulnerable student populations can stay hidden under these guidelines as outlined in this report by the Office of Special Education, and even worse, they can simply be swept under the rug by irresponsible educators. Second, if a low performing group is being folded into the rest of the testing data, this can drag down overall numbers and cause a misinterpretation that a group that is being served well by the education system is not being served well at all.

Keeping this information in mind, what would be a good N-size to use that would provide the most accountability for state educators, while maintaining the privacy of students and their data? According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a n-size of 10. In 2010, NCES released a report that details how states could easily report testing data with an n-size as low as 10 while still maintaining the privacy of the students involved.

No matter where you stand on education ideologically, you can agree that having more data is always a good thing. It keeps school districts and states accountable, it allows educators to better serve their student populations, and it protects groups that are typically swept under the rug. We already see this happening in states like Texas, where special education students were consistently not provided even the minimum educational benefit required by federal law. It is also worth noting that new ESSA state plans have begun to trickle in, and while some states are lowering the population sizes that they use for reporting data to 10, many are still maintaining high population sizes for accountability purposes. Anyone who is pro-accountability should find these new ESSA guidelines to be incredibly suspect and it is likely that we will see more vulnerable populations suffer before this misguided policy move comes under greater public scrutiny.

Image source: Gerald Herbert, AP

Running on Empty? The Colorado River in Crisis

A combination of environmental issues, states’ authority, and individual water rights linger over the future of the Colorado River. Recently, The Denver Post published an article that called on the incoming Trump administration to protect the Colorado River basin, which said that the country is extremely close to experiencing its first water shortage declaration. To better prepare contingency plans for drought and put water savings plans into place, The Post calls on federal assistance to help secure the future of this vital water supply.

Years of drought affecting the Western states have had a major impact on the river’s water supply, as well as the major water reserves that it stocks. States have difficulty in rolling back water usage as well, as many states continue to count the actual river water as a separate entity from the groundwater reserves, essentially double-counting the available water for use. As the population is set to continue its growth in the major western cities, is there a way federal and state governments work to improve the life of this vital river?


Problems facing the Colorado River

At 1,450 miles, the Colorado River supplies water to nearly 40 million people and traverses the landscape of seven Western states – Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Nearly 70 percent of the residents of these states rely on the Colorado River for their water supply. This is all in addition to supporting 15 percent of the nation’s food supply and filling two of its largest water reserves, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the most recent conditions place each of the seven states that rely on the Colorado in some level of drought that ranges from abnormally dry to ‘exceptional drought.’ Of these states, five are ranked among the top three worst categories for drought. In California, 93 percent of the state has been experiencing severe drought conditions, along with 86 percent of Nevada, 34 percent of Utah, 29 percent of Arizona, and 11 percent of New Mexico. Through its outlook for the first quarter of 2017, the Drought Monitor expects the drought to persist for nearly all of Southern California, large swaths of Arizona and large parts of Nevada (as well as a large stretch of the southern Midwest and southeastern United States).

As the Western states have experienced years of drought and dwindling water supplies, many state governments have allowed businesses and individuals to tap into groundwater sources. According to an article published by ProPublica in July 2015, nearly 60 percent of California’s water comes from underground, and nearly half of Arizona’s water supply is pumped from aquifers. However these two sources of water are linked and drawing water from one will most surely result in the eradication of the other.

The use of river water for other purposes in the West is a major factor that is contributing to the dwindling resources. As National Geographic reports, agriculture consumes 78 percent of the Colorado River’s water while municipalities and industry use the remaining 22 percent via diverted aqueducts and pipelines.  Many of the crops require water that is diverted from the river itself or drawn from groundwater sources. States like California grow water-intensive crops like almonds and rice, while Arizona’s continued growth of cotton typically requires 60 percent more water to grow than is required to harvest wheat.

Expected population growth links these separate issues and brings this problem to the policy forefront. In the Las Vegas, Nevada and northern Arizona area population is expected to grow nearly 25 percent from 2020 to 2030, and surrounding areas in southern Utah and northern Arizona are expected to grow between 15 to 25 percent over the same period of time. ProPublica expects the population in the Denver metropolitan area to grow by 56 percent within the next 25 years, which would bring its population to nearly 4 million by 2030. As these major population centers continue to grow, their reliance on the Colorado River to meet demands will further exacerbate the declining water levels.


Governing the Colorado 

Historically, claims to river and water rights in the United States fall under two systems: either 1) riparian water rights or 2) appropriation rights. In the West, appropriation water rights are much more common and were put in place to protect the first settlers who laid claim to river water from any latecomers. This priority exists during times of shortage, and appropriators (those using water diverted from the river) are only able to use the water that is needed, which means excess must be returned to the source. In other words, use it or lose it.

To complicate matters, Western states are currently operating at a water deficit, in that there is an over-allocation of river water. This problem began in the 1920s, when water was divvied up between the Colorado River states to keep any one populous state from taking complete ownership. However, this was done by calculating the flow based on an abnormally wet year, with an 18 million acre-feet river flow with nearly 4.8 trillion gallons of water. Within a few years the river had only a 12 million acre-feet flow, but this did not stop the breakdown of river water among the several states. In 2015, Scientific American reported that 16.5 million acre-feet of water flow had been allocated among the states, yet the river had been flowing at a rate of 12.4 million acre-feet per year.

Why is the over-allocation continuing to plague Western states? Water politics in the West have taken on a ‘third rail’ aspect, in that changing the status quo is politically risky and therefore not always viable. For example, two of the states shown to be suffering from severe drought conditions – California and Arizona – still continue to count groundwater resources as separate from the river resources, which essentially double-counts the water available for use. In California, while recent legislation did begin to regulate the withdrawal of groundwater it did not address the interconnection between groundwater and surface water. In fact, the legislation prevents state regulators from addressing the interconnection between both sources of water for local plans until 2025.


What happens next?

As the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, oversees the Bureau of Reclamation and US Geological Survey, both of which enforce federal laws over the Colorado River. As a Congressman, Zinke was a supporter of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and while he has advocated for a review of “job-killing regulations” he does support infrastructure improvements for the National Park Service. To many, Zinke’s opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and his stance on climate change is troubling and may not help in the long run to improve conditions with the Colorado River.

There is a potential for federal action here. Since states have tied their own hands when it comes to addressing the relationship between groundwater and river water, management at the federal level could tackle this challenge. New management at the could direct conservation efforts; for example farmers can be incentivized to grow alternative crops that require less water for growth through subsidies dispersed at the federal level. Federal agencies can also consistently measure water flow and issue guidance to direct state agencies to use this data in their allocation of resources.

In a recent letter to the new Secretary, Latino leaders from Western states requested his leadership on three key priorities related to the Colorado River. They included working with Governors to balance the water levels in the lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada), collaborating with the Mexican Ambassador to ensure the continuation of adequate water levels in Lake Mead to support water for their shared environment, and using market-based tools and collaborative solutions to ensure the water supply. During his confirmation hearing, Zinke alluded to the collaboration between his department and the basin states, and the U.S. already has an agreement with Mexico to ensure water levels.

In addition to these recommendations, Congress could push legislation to clearly define the linkage between groundwater and river water to prevent double counting and find a balance to the ‘use it or lose it’ problem that comes with appropriation rights, perhaps through a regulated market system to sell access to unused resources. Major cities and urban areas could be directed to come up with their own conservation plans and require businesses within their jurisdiction to implement conservation efforts for industries that use plenty of water. Good performers can be incentivized to continue their trend and serve as a model for industries struggling to adapt.

While these major problems continue to hinder the flow of the Colorado River, they highlight the need for combined local, state and federal solutions to solve the problem. Through efforts to recognize the link between surface and groundwater, like in California, and hearings at the federal level to address the entire western water system, conservation and modernization efforts can begin to take root and bring life back to the Colorado River.

Image Source: Shutterstock

Denying Students the Services They Need to Succeed

In a recent Houston Chronicle Expose, it unmasked how unelected state officials have devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled students out of special education. As an educator in rural Mississippi, I was horrified by this piece and its findings. I’ve had the opportunity to teach students with disabilities and have seen first-hand the value and necessity in these various services.

Texas is the spotlight regarding this growing concern over cuts to special education services and the long-term impacts of the children that get left behind. In 2004, the Texas Education Agency created a regulation that restricts the amount of students who receive special education services to 8.5 percent. Furthermore, this regulation punishes schools that fail to abide to this benchmark. These new expectations are part of the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis, which has led thousands of disabled students to be excluded from special education services.  School districts across the state have started to classify students as “504’s”, which allows students extra time on examinations but declines them access to special education services. Districts have also convinced parents to pull their children out of public school. This system has been so “effective”, yet roughly 250,000 students that have a right to services such as therapy, counseling, and one-on-one tutoring are being turned away. Technically, it’s illegal for states to cap special education. Texas’ way around the Individual Disability Education Act, a law that gave every child, including those with disabilities a right to access public education, was to count the number of special education students as an indicator of school quality. The effects of this percentage are reflected in the chart below:

This chart displays Texas’s “unofficial” special education cap. Looking at 2004 to now, Texas has 46 percent less kids with learning disabilities the percentage of students with emotional and mental illnesses, orthopedic impairments, speech impairments and brain injuries has also dropped significantly. This drop is most apparent in big cities – Houston and Dallas offer only 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of student’s special education services. The origin of this “indicator” is rooted in Texas official’s decision to cut Texas Education Agency’s budget by $1.1 billion dollars. This drop is due to Texas’ system using low special education percentages as an “indicator” of school quality, not due to a decline of students who need special education assistance.

On average, educating a special education student is twice as costly as an average student.  The federal government pays only 20 percent of the cost of special education leaving a state like Texas to  spend nearly $3 billion in 2002; the main factor in creating the 8.5 percent cap on special education services.  According to former Commissioner Shirley Neeley Richardson, this 8.5 percentage was a “first stab” at addressing the high percentage of special education students. This “first stab” has been remarkably effective, as 96 percent of all districts have reduced their special education rates since 2004. Districts that did not abide to this percentage had their funding cut and were forced to provide a corrective action plan that would reduce special education percentages. Districts have also cut percentages by forcing families to bear the burden for disability evaluations, claiming there is a waiting list and falsely telling parents testing only happens once every two years.

However, one should not make the mistake of believing Texas and other conservative states are the only ones neglecting special education. Lawsuits have sprung up throughout the country, including in progressive states such as California and Massachusetts. A lawsuit in California heard by the federal courts dealt with parents throughout the state who argued that California wasn’t providing adequate education to disabled students. Parents in California fought in some cases for a decade to get their child the help they needed. A lawsuit also occurred in Massachusetts where the Massachusetts Advocates for Children argued that children are being left without services for months at an early age, stunting their developmental progress. As shown through Texas, California and Massachusetts, there are not enough protections in place for students with disabilities.

To ensure that students are provided adequate resources and equal access to a quality education, the federal government should cap itemized deductions for households. Per a CNN article, if the federal government caps itemized deductions to $50,000, roughly $749 billion would be raised in the next decade. If lawmakers want to make sure charitable contributions are not taxed, roughly $490 billion would be raised. The government should cap these deductions and stipulate that school districts must spend 50 percent of all additional funds received from this revenue towards special education students. This would give school districts the funding they need to provide students with an equal and equitable education.

Every day that the federal government stands absent, more students with disabilities are being neglected and falling further behind. Stella Young, a disability rights activist once wrote, “My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.” We must act so that all students persevere in an environment that will allow them to succeed.

Image source: Marilyn Nieves, Getty Images