PCBs, Lyme Disease and Honeybees

The world’s not a happy place these days but there is a temptation to think that at least some of what’s happening nationally — e.g. who gets what big job in Washington — won’t much impact your daily life. Wrong, for sure, when it comes to the air you breathe and the water you drink.

Look no further than Newburgh, New York last month.

In 2016 it was discovered that Washington Lake, a major source of water for City of Newburgh residents, was contaminated with PFOAs from nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base. These chemicals, used as fire retardants, have been linked to the proliferation of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis, among other diseases. Then just a few weeks ago, the City was again threatened by the use of a chemical foam used at the airport.

Exactly two days after the latest news of contamination, The New York Times reported that the EPA wants to downplay the risk of this class of chemical in drinking water under pressure from the Defense Department. Prior to the EPA’s revision, the agency had suggested those responsible for proliferation would need to take immediate action. But proposed revisions would let the agency drag its feet on cleanup or avoid remediation.

These events and others like them across the state and country make the Benjamin Center’s latest discussion brief, Hudson River PCBs: What the GE Clean-Up Brings to Life, by Simon Litten, more than a powerful history lesson.

Litten shows that the extraordinarily costly, time-consuming, and ultimately equivocal cleanup of PCBs from the Hudson River is at least in part the result of even well-meaning researchers fumbling for decades about how to study the impact of toxins already released into the environment. Litten says “prevention would be far better, and far cheaper than cleanup.” Put differently, the broadly applicable general lesson is that pretending a problem doesn’t exist (more…)

How Low Can you Go?! Scoring “well below proficient” on New York State Tests

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center.
Each year, the New York State Education Department releases a statement summarizing how well students performed on exams in English Language Arts (ELA) and math. The April 2018 tests were given to nearly one million students statewide. In September, SED announced that 45.2 percent of students were proficient on the ELA tests, an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

But that still leaves 54.8 percent who were not—over half of the 966,000 students who took the ELA. Who are these kids, the majority who do not meet the standard of proficiency? And what do their scores reveal about the test?

Our recently reported research, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, has focused on students’ floundering over a significant part of the ELA—the written, or constructed response questions. We were particularly interested in the students who received zeroes on that set of questions, indicating complete befuddlement when they tried to provide intelligible answers.

In this post, we look at the big picture, children’s overall performance on the ELA from 2012 to 2018, and further investigate the kids that the New York State Testing Program is leaving behind. They are the ones who, in SED’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests.

As in our previous studies, we focus on children in grades 3 and 4, the youngest test takers. Further, it is important to note that there have been significant changes to the test itself in recent years—a new test publisher, fewer questions, and unlimited time to complete the exams—that thwart comparison and confound interpretation of the results from year to year, particularly the latter years. (more…)

When Politicians are Appointed, Rather than Elected, We the People Don’t Get to Choose

Filling vacancies when a politician steps down is a hot topic today. Witness the mess in Virginia. Closer to home in Ulster County, we likewise are facing a controversy, albeit of a smaller scale. Ulster County Executive Michael Hein recently announced that he will shortly resign to become the commissioner of the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance. This will create a vacancy in the county’s top elected executive position for the first time since we adopted our charter in 2006. So we find ourselves learning now about how we must fill the vacancy. And some of us are not happy.

Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale and his Republican counterpart, Roger Rascoe, have asked that governor Andrew Cuomo intervene in the process. More on that, shortly.

The bigger picture is that we miss the significance of this kind of issue because our governmental system is so decentralized. There are more than 500,000 elected offices in the United States.  After looking at some demographics and mortality tables, I reached a rough estimate that about 3,000 incumbents will die in office this year. And that does not count those who will resign, or get sick and can’t work, or move away, or are removed for cause. Nor does it consider offices that must be filled because no one runs for them. In total, that’s likely several thousand more. So we need to think hard about what is at stake.

When I worked on the question of filling vacancies in elective office for the New York City Charter Commission in the 1980s, I learned of the mix governmental and political considerations embedded in this process: continuity in governance; legitimacy of representative government; and political career advancement. Unfortunately, too often the latter priority overwhelmed the other two more noble goals, and careers in “elected” office were regularly launched and advanced by appointment. (more…)

The Benjamin Center Update

An ongoing look at our research, events, and news coverage by and about our scholarship. Calendar November 6th The Benjamin Center’s associate director, K.T. Tobin, will be a guest of Radio Kingston talking about Sam Sinyangwe’s studies of police violence against African American communities. This will be ahead of Sinyangwe’s Read more…

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