Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, December 23, 2005
Around this time of year, I generally post a run-down of charitable organizations that I support, and encourage my readers to do likewise. Here is last year's post. Here is a post from 2002.

Rather than repeat the list, I'm going to talk about new charities that I've gotten involved with, and also give an update on some of the "regulars" on my list year after year.

Before I do that, though, I wanted to clue readers in to an interesting quirk in the tax law this year. (Although this is probably too late to do any good, I'm going to do this anyway.) In September, President Bush signed the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005. Among this law's provisions were the following changes to the law regarding charitable deductions. Outright gifts of cash made in 2005 after August 27th of this year to most public charities - whether involved in Katrina relief or not - are exempt from certain restrictions on claiming deductions that would have normally applied. Specifically, the contribution limit was increased from 50% of adjusted gross income to 100% (this applies only to outright gifts of cash, not gifts of securities, real property, etc.), and the same outright gifts of cash are exempt from the 3% reduction in itemized deductions for individuals with an adjusted gross income over $145,950. What this boils down to is: depending on how much you give and what your income is, it might save you money to contribute to your favorite charities in 2005 rather than in 2006.

(The reason, by the way, that all contributions are exempt from these limits is that otherwise donors who typically gave more than they could deduct would have had a strong incentive to reduce contributions to other charities and give to Katrina relief organizations instead so as to benefit from the exemption, and the intent was to increase overall giving and giving to Katrina relief specifically, and not to drain money out of other charities towards Katrina relief.)

In any event, let me tell you about two schools I've gotten involved with - two very different schools, each with a profound sense of mission and a great deal to offer their students and communities.

The first is a recently-approved charter school to be based in Harlem, Democracy Prep Charter School. I joined the board of trustees of this prospective school this past summer. I am incredibly impressed with the founder and proposed Head of School, Seth Andrew, and with his vision for the school. We're drawing on the proven methods applied at schools like KIPP and North Star Academy and Amistad Academy: a disciplined environment, a strong school culture, an extended day and year, a strong, substantive curriculum and regular assessments of students on a relative and absolute basis. We're also intending to introduce a number of innovative elements, some from other successful schools and school systems that haven't been used in our model charters (e.g., looping students in two-year "academies") and others that reflect the special mission of Democracy Prep (e.g., a mandatory civics curriculum and participation in competitive speech and debate).

I like a lot of things about the school in concept. Here are some of things I like best of all. Seth manifests a rare and invaluable combination of realism and idealism. He's got to be idealistic if he's going to try to make a difference to the student population of Harlem, which has atrocious stats on almost any metric. He's got to be realistic if he's going to actually make any kind of a difference. I think he's got the balance right. He's thinking about how high-performing charters have succeeded in the past, but also about where they've stumbled - notably, in transitions out of the highly supportive and structured environment of a high-performing inner-city charter to a selective high school or prep school or (for students coming out of charter high schools) college. A big part of the thinking about innovations for Democracy Prep has revolved around how to make those inevitable transitions more successful. I also really like the emphasis on civics and forensics, the one a vastly under-taught subject vital to a successful republic, the latter an activity that nurtures vastly under-taught skills that are an asset to any citizen and, indeed, in any field of employment.

I am a strong supporter of the charter school movement for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, charters are the only currently plausible way of getting around the onerous restrictions of the union contracts that govern our nation's schools. Charter schools can hire and fire teachers just like any private business or school, and are exempt from the byzantine array of work rules and from most of the grievance process. I say they are the only plausible way of getting around these contracts because head-on assaults on the teachers' unions appear to be politically impossible, and vouchers face numerous legal and political obstacles (some of them legitimate, others not). Charters, by contrast, are overwhelmingly popular.

Second, some form of competition for students is an essential complement to any system of evaluative testing. The reason is that absent competition, there is no real feedback mechanism for the information coming from testing. The only feedback is through the bureaucracy - the No Child Left Behind Act gives the Feds the power to shut down schools that repeatedly fail these assessments - and the bureaucracy can be (and is currently being) gamed in a variety of ways. If you know your career depends on passing a test, you will find a way to pass that test - and that's exactly what school districts across the country are doing, by making the tests easier, by teaching exclusively to the test and dropping real content, and by outright cheating. In the right context, with competition and proper oversight, NCLB could be an essential element in improving education in America. Much of that necessary context is now absent, and in some districts NCLB has actually exacerbated preexisting negative trends.

Third, charters thread an important ethical needle. We are committed, at least rhetorically, to providing a decent education for all. That should mean that the public school system has to take all comers, and do its best with them to provide them that education. Private schools don't have to do that - they must not have to do that; selectivity is part of their mission, frankly, whether they are selecting for academics or for "fit" with a particular scholastic, religious or other ethos. Because charters (at least in NYC) must take randomly selected students from the pool of eligible applicants, they don't therefore raise the interesting ethical question that vouchers do about what happens to the students who are not selected. Of course, there is still a selection bias with charters; you have to apply, after all, which means the parents must care something about their children's futures. And they have more lattitude than the public schools to remove students who are discipline problems from their classes. But this kind of selectivity is, I think, overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, because charters are sited in the neighborhoods where their student population largely resides, they do not raise the problem that private schools do of pulling the most talented and promising segment of the local youth out of the neighborhood; rather, they generate social capital in the neighborhood that can have real collateral benefits beyond the school. Of course it doesn't always work that way; but it can, and often will.

Fourth, I'm very much a believer that one-size education does not fit all. The student population is very diverse, with varied levels of basic scholastic aptitude, of specific abilities, of temperaments and learning styles, and (it goes without saying in this age of diagnostic proliferation) disabilities. All this before we even start talking about culture, language, family background, etc. Different schools will suit different students. One nice thing about at least some charters is that they have distinctive characters and missions, some of which might be more appealing to one set of students and some to others. So long as certain basic standards are maintained, I think that kind of diversity - a variety of types of schools, each with a strong and internally unified culture - is a strong positive for our education system.

Finally, and not least, even when different charters look pretty similar to one another, they benefit from having a strong sense of mission, and a staff that is dedicated to that mission. In that sense, they pose another selection problem - charters are attracting the best teachers. They are surely doing more good in their new environments than they were in their old schools, but even if the net some is positive it is a drain on the school system. This equation isn't static, though; as the charter movement grows, it should change the incentives for entering - and staying in - the teaching profession, which should result in gains for the system as a whole and not just for the individual charters. It will take a long time for schools of education to begin to change in response to the charter movement, but it will eventually happen, and it won't happen without the charter movement.

I wound up involved in Democracy Prep mostly by accident. But I'm very, very energized by what Seth (and the rest of the team) have done so far. We're now in the process of evaluating possible spaces for the school, as well as in the process of recruiting teachers and other staff. Leads on either are always welcome; feel free to email me and I'll pass the information along to the relevant parties.

The other school I intended to mention is one I'm currently not as involved in, except as a donor, but I expect to get more involved as time goes on - because I expect my son will attend. The Hannah Senesh Community Day School is something too rare in the Jewish community: a school that genuinely strives to be a community school rather than a denominational one. It is very difficult to achieve the balance necessary to keep such a school afloat; a school that has modern Orthodox and totally unaffiliated families is going to have to negotiate questions of kashrut standards, mixed-sex education and prayer, and so forth - and there's no way everyone will be happy with the compromises that result. But negotiating those compromises is vital, because the denominalization of the Jewish community has had very deleterious consequences for both the Orthodox and liberal ends of the spectrum.

As for the quality of the school, I have had moments of nervousness about how "progressive" the instructional model is; I'm kind of an old-school type myself, and think that much of progressive education is sheer hogwash, and some of it quite destructive. But a number of our friends send their students to Hannah Senesh and they are uniformly thrilled with the quality of the instruction and with how happy their kids - from kindergardeners to teenagers - are to go to school. And the graduates are thriving in tough high schools, which is a pretty strong recommendation, in my view.

Hannah Senesh and Democracy Prep could not be more different and they could not be more similar. One is sectarian and private; the other, public. One serves a self-selected population of Jewish students in Brooklyn; the other, a randomly selected population of mostly black students in Harlem. One has a strong focus on creating a disciplined and orderly school culture, and the curriculum in the early years will be significantly informed by the methods of Direct Instruction (though this evolves very much in the later grades); the other takes a certain amount of discipline for granted and takes a more "child-centered" approach to education. So much, so different. And yet they have crucial aspects in common. Both have a relatively long school day. Both have strongly motivated staff, a strong school culture, and are "bootstrap" organizations that started with nothing. Both bring a strong ethical and civic component to their educational philosophy. Both believe in a high level of parental involvement (Hannah Senesh was created a decade ago by a group of parents unhappy with the choices available for Jewish day school education in brownstone Brooklyn). Both are committed to teaching students of varying abilities and with disabilities. And both are committed to preparing their students for success in college and in life.

A friend of mine asked me, when I hit him up for money for Democracy Prep, why he should support a school that he wouldn't send his kids to? And it's a fair question. But it's wrongly premised. I don't know what my son's abilities and needs are going to turn out to be, so I don't know whether, ultimately, he belongs in a highly academic environment or a school geared towards students with more average academic gifts; whether he'll prove to have profound musical or mathematical or athletic or oratorical talents that we would want his school to be well-equipped to nurture; whether he will thrive in a highly Jewish-oriented school or whether he will chafe against it. I think there should be lots of different kinds of schools because there are lots of different kinds of students. And I think we should support models that work for the population they are aiming to serve.

Those are the two new names on the list that I wanted to highlight. There are a number of other charities that I've given to for the first time this year, but none that I've been involved in to a significant degree. (There's a theatrical group that I may join the board of, but it really depends on whether they get their act together, as it were, so I'll save them for next year's post on this topic.) So let me now turn to a few organizations I've mentioned in the past and give a brief update.

For a number of years, I've given to Technoserve, a charity that helps rural agricultural entrepreneurs in Latin America and Africa. The more I read about the developing world's economic problems, the more convinced I am of the importance of the work Technoserve does in getting these business-owners access to credit, access to both financial and technical expertise, and access to the large buyers that drive the global agricultural markets. Technoserve's work is not the solution to poverty in the developing world; there is no "the" solution. But their work is an essential part of the solution, because self-sustaining businesses create capital, financial and social, and there is no prospect for improvement in the developing world without locally-generated capital. I am interested in hearing about other charities that are effective that are working with the same philosophy in urban areas. The International Rescue Committee and International Medical Corps never lack for work, unfortunately, and I continue to support both. But I'm very interested in finding more outfits that can actually solve problems instead of just ameliorating them.

Among the Jewish organizations that I've been supporting the longest is Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Hillel has recently had a change in leadership, and has also taken somewhat of a different direction than it had in the past. Specifically, Hillel is increasingly focused on outreach to largely unaffiliated Jews on campus. And they are approaching this population segment with two new focuses: one, "Judaizing" (for lack of a better word) social action that the students may already be interested in; two, approaching Judaism more as an activity from a suite of activities, rather than as a defining affiliation. Or, perhaps better, as part of a kaleidescopic identity with many facets. I am troubled by both trends. I understand why the organization is going in this direction, and I could imagine the first, at least, being done very well. But I can also imagine it being done badly. If Hillel sends a student to Guatemala for the summer to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, Hillel has done a good deed, but it's not obvious to me that Hillel's mission has been advanced. If Hillel puts a student interested in reproductive rights in touch with Planned Parenthood to do an internship for the summer, it seems to me that Hillel has either (a) taken sides on something utterly divorced from its mission, or (b) if Hillel would equally happily send a student to a group that lobbies on the other side of the abortion controversy, become entirely incoherent. What worries me is that Hillel may have reached the end of the line in terms of promoting Jewish life on campus while trying to stay agnostic on what Jewish life means. "Social action" as the liberal denominations like to call it is assuredly part of Jewish life - but if that action isn't embedded in a Jewish life, then how does Hillel know what kinds of action are consonant with its mission and which are counter - or which could cut strongly either way depending on one's ideology? And what about Judaism, if anything, is being communicated this way? I guess my point is: if Hillel wants to do more "social justice" stuff that raises the bar for religious seriousness in the organization; it doesn't lower it. Hillel does a whole lot of very good things - besides providing a base camp from which a variety of Jewish groups, religious and cultural, can operate on campus, it runs the birthright program that sends young adults to Israel, a program which has proven enormously successful. I'm still very supportive of the organization. That's why I don't want it to lose what it has achieved by trying to be all things to all people.

In the wake of the transit strike, I have redoubled my support for The Manhattan Institute. The Manhattan Institute is the only right-leaning think tank I'm aware of that focuses specifically on urban issues. And they understand these issues - they are not knee-jerk libertarians or the type of cultural conservatives who would prefer to saw off the eastern seaboard. Their fellows, like E.J. McMahon, Julia Vitullo-Martin and Steven Malaga have been ubiquitous in the New York media on a whole host of issues vital to the future of New York and, by extension, other cities. I also think they deserve credit for keeping Heather MacDonald and Tamar Jacoby under one roof; if the GOP can continue to manage that same trick constituency-wise, I'll be even more impressed. Mayor Bloomberg has not been nearly so attentive to their advice as was his predecessor, but he hasn't been entirely closed either. I sincerely hope the next governor of our state is a regular reader. I'll certainly be listening to how they handicap the various prospects.

Overwhelmingly our biggest arts-related charity remains the Stratford Festival of Canada. Next year's season looks like a real winner; we may see as many as a dozen shows. We did substantially increase our support for the Brooklyn Museum, however. They just did a fabulous renovation of the front entrance to the museum, making it vastly more appealing to the eye (here's a picture, so you can see if you agree with my assessment) and creating a lovely new public plaza that our son loves to tear around in before (and after) going to the museum. The Brooklyn Museum is a wonderful collection in search of a mission. Their big problem is that they draw an audience overwhelmingly from Brooklyn and, well, there just isn't a big enough audience in the borough to sustain a major museum of the caliber that you find on Museum Mile in Manhattan. So they try a little bit of everything to drum up interest, and sometimes they do wonderful shows (for example, the current exhibit of Edward Burtynsky's photographs), and sometimes . . . not. The only way to keep a treasure like the Brooklyn Museum from being wasted or trashed is to get involved, though, and that's what we've begun to do.

I'm not attempting to make a comprehensive list of charities here, and many of those that I've mentioned before - the Nature Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, etc. - I continue to support and in some cases have increased my support to. But this post has already gotten incredibly long, so I thought I'd shift gears and solicit ideas for next year - places to give that I may not currently be giving to but would like to.

Here are some examples of things I care about where I would like to find honest, effective organizations to support.

If there is an iconoclastic (but accredited) school of education that is out to revolutionize the way teachers are trained in this country, that is serious and research-based and is neither infected with progressive nonsense nor addicted to navel-gazing, I want to know its name.

If there is an organization devoted to bringing either of the following to American youngsters that is not infected with bad aesthetic notions or worse political ones, I'd like to know it's name: (1) the English poetical tradition (or, failing that, Shakespeare); (2) drawing and draftsmanship.

I would love to know an organization devoted to improving the lives of animals raised for food that is sane, realistic and morally grounded.

I suspect Steve Sailer is right that there are nutritional and other environmental deficiencies that significantly impact the cognitive potential of the poorest people, in America and in the world. The only "cause" in this regard I've ever heard discussed publicly is lead poisoning, which is mostly a tort racket at this point. Are there organizations devoted domestically to this question? Internationally? I would be interested in any or all of research, public education, and direct service delivery. I'm sure the good work CARE and other such organizations do have a positive effect in this regard; I'm interested in whether there is a highly targeted organization working on this question from some angle.

I believe strongly that Israel has done itself an enormous disservice by investing insufficiently in the development of the Negev. The American states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are no less barren and desertified, and they've become significant contributors to the American economy. There's a good argument to be made that the Negev is a net economic contributor to Israel's well-being in spite of being an "underdeveloped" region. I'm highly suspicious of the kind of top-down, centrally-planned (non-)development that Israel has typically engaged in. I'm very interested to know whether there are good private organs working - effectively - on development of the Negev, from a residential or industrial point of view. The only organization I currently support that fits the bill is Ben Gurion University of the Negev. I'm interested in hearing other ideas.

These are examples. I'm open to any other suggestions people have.