Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer


Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Virtual Classes, Real Cheating

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 5:23 AM EDT

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been crisscrossing the country over the past year touting the benefits of virtual education for elementary and secondary students—and for cash-strapped state budgets. (I wrote a lengthy story about that enterprise here.) Earlier this month at a summit he convened in San Francisco, his new advocacy group, Digital Learning Now, outlined the steps he thinks states should take to expand digital learning in public schools. Among the requirements are such controversial things as repealing teacher-student ratio requirements or teacher credentialing mandates, as well as letting more for-profit providers have a crack at public school money. He also recommends that states mandate that proficiency tests be taken online or digitally. Bush will be checking up on the states over the next year and "grading" them on how well they follow his recommendations. One thing Bush's education summit and state report cards don't address, though, is what states ought to do to prevent cheating in online classes, which has become a chronic problem.

Even as states rush to embrace Bush's vision of "21st-century learning," the National Education Policy Center this week released a new policy paper on virtual K-12 education. Researcher Gene Glass and colleagues noted that one of the biggest issues dogging virtual K-12 education is "authenticity of student work." That cheating would be a problem in classes where there are only computers and no teachers seems sort of obvious. Anyone could be doing the work and taking the tests in those classes, after all. And there's little to prevent kids from simply Googling their way to an A.

Glass cites a school in Ohio run by K12 Inc., a large for-profit online provider, in which about half the students were discovered not to even own a computer, raising serious questions about how they were completing all the work they'd supposedly done. They also highlight the case of North High School in Denver, which earlier this year was profiled by the alt-weekly Westword in a story that suggested the school was allowing students to cheat on online classes for "credit recovery" that allowed them to graduate and boost the school's dismal profile.

In 2010, the school's graduation rate, previously among the worst in the state at 48 percent, soared to 64 percent after the online credit recovery classes had been implemented. But Westword didn't find that the online classes were just so fabulous that kids embraced them and suddenly succeeded where they'd failed in a regular classroom. Instead, they found multiple instances where the students weren't doing any of the coursework in the classes at all but were passing their final exams with flying colors.

Former school staffers reported that students were using their iPhones to find the answers to the multiple-choice questions. Others simply took the tests over and over again (which they could do online) until they figured out the right answers through the process of elimination, and then passed the answers on to friends. The company providing the online classes at North High? Apex Learning, one of the major donors to Jeb Bush's digital-ed lobbying campaign. Is it any wonder Bush doesn't want to talk about cheating?

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The GOP Hates Bikes

| Tue Oct. 25, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

Over the past few months, as Republicans have focused their attention on cutting what they see as wasteful government spending, they've zeroed in on a surprising new target: bicyclists, and the programs that serve them.

The federal government spends about $40 billion a year on transportation projects. Of that, about $928 million has been devoted to what's known as a "transportation enhancement" program, which provides funding for projects—including rails-to-trails conversions, bike lanes, and bridges—that make cycling safer, and thus more viable as a commuting option. But as Congress gears up to reauthorize the massive transportation funding bill this year, Republicans are arguing that states shouldn't be forced to use scarce transportation funds to encourage bike commuting when bridges for cars are falling down.

"We’re doing all these things that, if we had extra money, if we were running a surplus, sure, nobody would really be complaining about it," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told the Washington Post. But, Coburn added, "We can no longer have silly priorities get in the way of real needs."

States spend only about 1 percent of all transportation funds on projects devoted to cycling or pedestrian improvements. Yet Republicans see this as an area ripe for cutting. Over the summer, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) targeted DC's nascent Capitol Bikeshare program, which provides cheap rental bikes at subway stations and other strategic locations in the Washington Metro area (including northern Virginia) to encourage bike commuting.

The program has been wildly successful and has inspired other cities to replicate it as a good way of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution (not to mention obesity). But Cantor sees only waste. As TBD reported in August, Cantor used the GOP's "YouCut" website to highlight Capitol Bikeshare as a foolish venture ripe for elimination. Cantor also complained that bike-sharing programs were one reason that federal transportation spending was vastly exceeding the revenues brought in by the gas tax. He writes: 

The Federal government distributed more than $53 billion in funding for highways and transit projects in FY 2011 from the federal highway and transit trust funds. Federal excise taxes on gasoline sales are supposed to support these programs, however spending has significantly exceeded gas tax revenues in recent years. One reason for the excess has been federal spending on projects that don’t involve highways or transit systems at all, including federally funded bike sharing programs. Bike sharing programs were part of the more than $1 billion the federal government spent on programs to promote biking and walking in 2010. Federal bike and walking programs received hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars in addition to an annually recurring funding base that now exceeds $600 million. Bike sharing programs involve installation of bike storage facilities throughout a metropolitan area, together with the purchase of publicly-owned bicycles that riders can use for free or a nominal fee as a method of transportation. Federally-funded bike sharing programs are currently operating in cities such as Washington DC, New York City, and Minneapolis.

The actual reason that gas tax revenues aren't meeting demand for infrastructure improvements is that Congress hasn't raised the tax since 1993, so its value has been eaten up by inflation. But no matter. Targeting bike programs to try to tame the federal budget seems to fall in line with the GOP's belief that the whole deficit problem could be solved if we just got rid of NPR and Planned Parenthood. It's an ideological battle rather than a viable budget solution. Bike programs are associated with liberal Democrats who believe in climate change and care about the environment, so Republicans like Cantor would like to get rid of them, even if those programs make it much easier for some of his constituents to get to work every day.

The Birthers' Next Target: Marco Rubio

| Thu Oct. 20, 2011 11:56 AM EDT
US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

For the past several years, conspiracy-pushing activists have been alleging that President Obama is not qualified to be president because, they claim, he was born in Kenya or that he's not really a "natural born citizen." The birthers have filed lawsuits, bought billboards reading, "Where's the birth certificate?", and sought legislation that would require presidential candidates to prove their American citizenship before gaining access to state ballots. None of this has gone anywhere. Most of the bills have failed. And, in a fit of exasperation in April prompted by Donald Trump's embrace of the issue, Obama defused much of the birther campaign by posting his long-form birth certificate online.

But the birthers haven't gone away. They've simply found a new target: up-and-coming GOP political star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio's name has been floated as a potential vice presidential candidate for 2012 and a future GOP presidential candidate. But the birthers are already arguing that, like Obama, he is ineligible to hold either office.

Birther Charles Kerchner has a blog that was once devoted mostly to Obama, but lately he's been on a campaign to illustrate that Rubio is not a natural born citizen, and thus, ineligible to enter the White House. Kerchner's logic is convoluted—something of a trend among the birther set. He claims that Rubio is actually a Cuban citizen, even though Rubio was born on American soil, in Miami, in 1971. But Rubio's parents were Cubans, who didn't become US citizens until 1975. (Kerchner went so far as to obtain Rubio's parents' naturalization papers from the National Archives to prove his point.) Thus, Kerchner posits, Rubio doesn't meet the "natural born" requirement set out in the Constitution, because his parents weren't American citizens. Birthers have tried this argument on Obama as well, because his father was Kenyan. But the argument didn't have much success then, and it's not likely to have much success now.

Kerchner isn't the the only one in his camp who believes Rubio can't be president. The queen of the birther movement, Orly Taitz, also agrees. Taitz, who has spent years in court suing Obama over his eligibility, told the St. Petersburg Times this week, "We need the court to finally adjudicate this issue, who is a natural born citizen." Rubio, for his part, was nonchalant about becoming the birthers' newest target. "The price of our freedom and our liberty is that people can go out and spend a lot of time on stuff like this," he told the paper. "For us, the more important thing is to focus on our job."

The birthers clearly need more to work on, given the extent to which they've exhausted most avenues for challenging Obama. Rubio will certainly help fill the bill, and just in time, too, for the upcoming "birther summit" in March. Kerchner and others who've been undaunted by Obama's efforts to take the steam out of their movement are planning a "massive" rally and summit in DC, where they intend to protest Washington's "continued cover up of the fraud that has been perpetrated upon us."

The Tea Party's Hatfield and McCoys

| Tue Oct. 18, 2011 2:42 PM EDT

Amy Kremer is the co-chair of the Tea Party Express, a fairly successful tea party enterprise created by a couple of California GOP political consultants. Jenny Beth Martin is a co-coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, a large tea party umbrella group which Kremer helped found. Both women are from Georgia. They were once friends. Today, though, it's safe to say that they basically hate each other.

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