Thursday Reading List: Compromise in Policymaking, Truth in Research

Let's start the day at The Atlantic, where Vann Newkirk unpacks the historical import of the "Vision 4 Black Lives," a policy platform unveiled this week by a coalition of organizations affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives:

The “Vision 4 Black Lives,” as the platform has been known on social media, lays out six core planks around criminal justice, reparations, investment and divestment, economic justice, community control, and political power. Some of these items, including the criminal-justice components of the platform’s demands to “end the war on black people,” are likely familiar to anyone who has followed the development of Black Lives Matter. But other ideas, including demands to add special protections for trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people to anti-discrimination laws, a call for free education for black people, and a proposal to implement black economic cooperatives, haven’t previously been spelled out quite this clearly. The demands are certainly controversial, but they are clearly the result of considered and methodical decision-making. The process by which the platform was created provides insights into both the state of black activism and the political moment ... The platform’s vision is ambitious and has elements unpalatable to most major politicians and people.

Activism and policymaking exist in a state of constant tension, and it is important to understand that there is not a linear connection between protest, activism, policy advocacy, and legislative victory. Different parts of this platform receive varying levels of support even within the movement coalition, just as the major political parties' presidential platforms are the result of significant horse-trading, compromising, and capitulation. One of the elements of the platform deals with how prosecutions are managed in the criminal justice system, and Albert Samaha at Buzzfeed took a long look at how hard it can be to change prosecutorial behavior. The piece focuses on Kari Brandenburg, a district attorney in New Mexico who changed her approach to police prosecutions after seeing video evidence:

The video, [Brandenburg] said, appalled her. An officer’s helmet camera captured what happened in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains on March 16, 2014. More than a dozen officers faced off with 38-year-old James Boyd, a homeless man with schizophrenia who had been illegally camping in the area. The police report claimed that Boyd had escalated the situation by threatening the officers with two knives, but the video showed that Boyd was not holding anything when officers fired a stun grenade and then sent a police dog at him. Only then did Boyd pull out the knives. He was turning away from the officers when six shots were fired, killing him. Brandenburg said that she was sickened when she met with police officials and heard their explanations. “I couldn’t sit there and listen to why it happened,” she said. “I just walked out of it. I didn’t have all of the info and so I didn’t want to say it was bullshit, but it was hitting me that something wasn’t right.” Unlike previous police shootings, she said, this one had a clear video that showed clear wrongdoing.

First, it's worth noting that prosecutors are people too, and given the fact that many Americans have been shocked out of complacency over police violence because of incontrovertible video evidence, it's not surprising that prosecutors have evolved similarly. There still exists, though, a disconnect between clear evidence and accountability. Solving that problem is a cultural problem, on top of a technical one.

Speaking of complex public policy issues with overlapping technical and cultural components, Rachel Cohen (no relation, although I do have a cousin with that name), is in The American Prospect with a long look at the struggle to change teacher tenure laws in California, which recently migrated from the courts to the legislature:

Today, however, local unions are fighting back against attempts to change employment laws through the legislature. California is one of just five states that grants teachers tenure after two years—32 states require a three-year probationary period, and nine states require four or five years. And, as critics are quick to point out, the reality is that California administrators must file paperwork for tenure status after a teacher has been working for just 15 to 18 months if they’re to meet state deadlines. Even those who are very supportive of teacher tenure feel lengthening the amount of time it takes to earn it makes sense. Before granting genuine job security, they say, make sure it’s for an individual you’d really want in front of students for the long haul. But the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have both strongly opposed bills aimed at modifying tenure, even legislation from which their adversaries have withdrawn support.

You should read this whole piece, because it details the technical and political machinations that intersect during the complex work of policy change, and is refreshingly balanced, given the polarizing nature of the issues at hand. The professional associations that represent teachers have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the employment interests of their members, above all else, which makes it hard to make even modest changes to personnel policies. In the meantime, an overheated political climate around education reform has driven both sides of the debate into their respective corners, making compromise all but impossible.

On the more technical side of the ledger, Robin Lake from the Center on Reinventing Public Education wants to rethink transparency standards in research, particularly given the way the public receives information:

Studies that have not gone through a peer review process are published almost weekly. Unless readers have a degree in statistics and want to wade through technical appendices, they must simply trust that the findings have merit. In the medical field, this type of academia is considered dangerous and irresponsible, yet in education it’s accepted and even defended. There is no going back to how research and journalism played out before the internet came on the scene, and few would want to. We must now adapt to the new realities so the public can still find meaning and knowledge, data and evidence. We could start with a concept borrowed from the medical field: Standards of Care. Doctors are ethically bound to apply the most current, evidence-based treatments to a given medical condition. They can lose their license or be sued if an objective observer finds they violate published Standards of Care for say, a hernia. Journalists and researchers should be bound by similarly clear criteria. Though it would be impossible to impose the same type of external accountability doctors face from a medical review board, transparency would be a good first step.

Lake's proposal seems reasonable, but the problem she identifies stretches beyond research, and has tentacles throughout policy and politics. Here's the Harvard Kennedy School a few days ago:

Brookings wants to avoid a departure from the truth and is publishing a weekly brief dedicated to understanding the actual research on an issue of public policy. Last week's briefing looked at tuition at public universities:

Combining data from multiple sources allows us to explore the relationship between university spending on education and what their students pay in tuition, more accurately estimating the average subsidies that students at public four-year universities receive. We use these estimates to examine how subsidies differ by family income and find that subsidies for education expenditures actually decline on average as student and family incomes increase. This finding stems from two key trends that are often overlooked. First, selective state universities are not enrolling primarily high-income students—a key part of the claims critics make. In fact, low-income students are well represented at public four-year universities. Even at the most elite state universities they make up about 25 percent of the student body. Second, low-income students tend to pay lower tuition than their high-income peers, even at the same type of universities, because they receive tuition discounts and grant aid from their school.

A rare bit of good news! Worth a modest celebration: