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Into the Tunnels: The Rise and Fall of Syria's Rebel Enclave in the Eastern Ghouta

December 21, 2016

This report attempts to chronicle the evolution of the Eastern Ghouta's politics since 2011, with a focus on the relations between local armed factions. Much could undoubtedly be written about how the Syrian government and its supporters have reacted to events in the Eastern Ghouta, but such analysis falls outside the scope of this report except as it touches directly on events inside the enclave.Unable to carry out research in the Eastern Ghouta or even meaningfully in Damascus to investigate these issues, I have instead relied on interviews with Syrians inside and outside the enclave, several of whom have to remain anonymous or are referred to by a pseudonym. Some interviews have been conducted in person, but most have taken place through Skype, phone, and email, or via Internet-based services such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, Viber, and Facebook.I have drawn a great deal of material from press statements by the relevant rebel factions and from Syrian government communications, as well as from online news sources and opposition forums in Arabic and English. Many rebel commanders maintain an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, and local activists have produced a wealth of commentary on social networking sites. Last but not least, coverage over the past few years by Syrian and international media, including from other Arab countries, has been an invaluable resource.Nonetheless, the dearth of systematic research and the lack of reliable source material has been a severe problem. In many cases I have been forced to piece together key events and context by collecting and comparing scraps of limited, biased, or contradictory data. Despite my best efforts, this report is certain to contain errors of fact and interpretation, and I would like to stress that those failures are mine alone; no interviewee or other source should be held responsible for any of the descriptions, conclusions, or opinions expressed.

Remedying School Segregation: How New Jersey's Morris School District Chose to Make Diversity Work

December 12, 2016

Beyond the districtwide numbers, the Morris district has achieved remarkable diversity at the school building level. Since the district has only one middle school and one high school, these are not where the diversity rubber meets the road. Rather, the test is the elementary school populations. There, the Morris district shines. Despite the fact that students live in relatively homogeneous, segregated neighborhoods, the elementary schools they attend defy that pattern. For example, to achieve perfect racial balance between black and white students at the elementary school level, only about 2.6 percent would have to change their school assignments.The Morris district still struggles with two aspects of diversity, however. First,—in common with virtually every diverse school district in the country—it is still attempting to bring meaningful diversity to every program and course within its school buildings, from higher-level Honors and Advanced Placement courses to special education classifications and rosters of disciplinary actions. Second, in common with some but hardly all diverse districts across the country, the Morris district is trying to cope with the explosive growth of Hispanic students, many of them in recent years economically disadvantaged students from Central American countries where they often failed to receive a solid educational foundation in their own language and culture. Understandably, these students tend not to score well on standardized tests, especially in their early years in MSD. This contributes substantially to the Morris district's record of relatively poor achievement levels in three substantially overlapping student categories—Hispanic, English Language Learners (ELL), and economically disadvantaged students—as compared to its relatively strong achievement levels for white and black students.As to both challenges, the Morris district is manifesting a remarkably can-do spirit and a palpable will to succeed.In all these respects, the study of the Morris district reported on here is designed ultimately to extract lessons for other school districts in New Jersey and the rest of the nation. This report begins by exploring briefly the historical, political, and legal context of educational integration in New Jersey, and how that led to the creation of the Morris School District. It then analyzes and discusses the successes—and the challenges—of MSD's integration efforts. Along the way, it contrasts the successes of MSD with two other districts in New Jersey—Plainfield and New Brunswick—that attempted integration by district merger, but failed. It concludes by making recommendations not only for improvements in MSD's approach, but for school districts across New Jersey and the country that are seeking to integrate their schools and classrooms.

Keeping the Lights On in Rebel Idlib: Local Governance, Services, and the Competition for Legitimacy among Islamist Armed Groups

November 29, 2016

In Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, residents have established local governance bodies that provide needed services and simultaneously pose a political challenge to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. No overarching authority has replaced the state after it was forced from Idlib. Islamist and jihadist armed groups hold power at the local level, and have developed relatively sophisticated service coordination bodies. Yet ultimate decision-making power has typically sat with donor organizations outside the country. Localism and wartime conditions have also frustrated attempts to unify and rationalize service and governance in Idlib. Syrian rebels wanted Idlib to demonstrate an alternative to Assad's rule, but their efforts have been stymied by internal rivalries and problematic relationships between local rebel administrators inside Syria and international sponsors abroad. Idlib's trajectory mirrors the wider dynamics of Syria's war and fragmented opposition.This report is based on more than two dozen interviews conducted in person in Turkey and over WhatsApp with Syrians inside Idlib in May, July, August, September, and October 2016, as well as a review of relevant Syrian press and social media. Interviewees included Western development workers and Syrian activists, rebels, humanitarian workers, and officials involved in local governance and service provision. Restrictive border measures taken by the Turkish government and the security situation inside Idlib mean that access to Idlib is limited. Dangers include aerial bombing, but also the threat of kidnapping by entrepreneurial criminals and some of the groups referenced in this report. With some exceptions, independent Western researchers and journalists can no longer safely work inside Idlib province. This report instead relies on interviews conducted remotely, including with local council officials contacted through their councils' Facebook pages, or through in-person meetings in neighboring Turkey. This report aims to be transparent about its sources and methods, and its assertions should be considered in light of the limitations on qualitative research inside Idlib and the rest of northern Syria.

Reining in Wall Street to Benefit All Americans

July 28, 2016

There has been considerable interest in financial transactions taxes (FTTs) in the United States and other wealthy countries in the years since the financial crisis. An FTT can be a way to both raise a large amount of revenue and also rein in the financial sector. This report examines the evidence on the potential for raising revenue through an FTT, its impact on the economy, and also the possibility of using the revenue to defray in particular the cost of higher education.

Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn't Work

May 25, 2016

For the better part of the past century, elected officials have sought ways to improve the performance of public sector operations, such as fire departments, libraries, health clinics, job training programs, elementary schools, and traffic safety. Interest in performance management has only grown over time, to the point today that it is nearly impossible to talk about government finance without also talking about performance. The idea of attempting to measure outcomes and paying for those results is compelling because of its simple logic. Proponents believe setting clear performance goals and tying funding to them will create incentives for public organizations to operate more efficiently and effectively, ultimately resulting in better delivery of public services. Fire departments, they reason, should not be funded according to the number of engines they own, but according to the number of fires they put out. Hospitals should be funded not by the number of patients admitted, but by the health outcomes of their patients. Schools should not be funded by the number of teachers they employ, but by each teacher's contribution to student learning.In recent years, advocates seeking to increase the number of college graduates in the United States have promoted the idea that states should finance their public universities using a performance-based model. Supporters of the concept believe that the $75 billion states invest in public higher education each year will not be spent efficiently or effectively if it is based on enrollment or other input measures, because colleges have little financial incentive to organize their operations around supporting students to graduation. When states shift to performance-based funding, it is hoped, colleges will adopt innovative practices that improve student persistence in college. The appeal of performance-based funding is "intuitive," its proponents argue, "based on the logical belief that tying some funding dollars to results will provide an incentive to pursue those results."However, while pay-for-performance is a compelling concept in theory, it has consistently failed to bear fruit in actual implementation, whether in the higher education context or in other public services.

Doing More for Our Children: Modeling a Universal Child Allowance or More Generous Child Tax Credit

March 16, 2016

Child poverty in the United States remains stubbornly high, with 12.2 million children living in poverty in 2013. Nearly 17 percent of children in the United States lived in poverty in 2013 -- a higher rate than for other age groups, and considerably higher than the child poverty rate in other advanced industrialized countries. The U.S. deep child poverty rate -- children who live in families with incomes less than half of the poverty line -- was 4.5 percent of all children in 2013, meaning nearly 1 in 20 children live in families that cannot even afford half of what is considered a minimally adequate living.One key policy for reducing child poverty is the child tax credit (CTC) -- which reduces the child poverty rate from 18.8 percent to 16.5 percent of American children. There is broad acceptance of the importance of the CTC, and key expansions to the CTC were made permanent at the end of 2015. At a moment when leaders ranging from President Barack Obama to Speaker Paul Ryan are talking about poverty, now is an opportune time to explore policy options that would build on this success. This report models two approaches to reduce child poverty in the United States even further -- a universal child allowance and an expanded CTC.A universal child allowance is a cash benefit that is provided to all families with children without regard to their income, earnings, or other qualifying conditions, and that could be subject to taxes for families with high incomes. The U.S. child tax credit, in contrast, is provided only to families that meet a threshold for earnings, phasing in as earnings increase and then phasing out as earnings rise higher. While most other advanced industrialized countries have some kind of universal support for children, the United States does not.For each approach, we begin with a modest reform, and then model increasingly generous versions. In our simulations, we find that even the modest reforms generate important poverty reductions. Our results also make clear that the more we spend on these programs, the greater the reduction in poverty the United States can achieve.

The Real Price of College: College Completion Series: Part Two

March 3, 2016

The high price of college is the subject of media headlines, policy debates, and dinner table conversations because of its implications for educational opportunities, student and family pocketbooks, and the economy. Some people caution against giving too much weight to the advertised price of a college education, pointing out that the availability of financial aid means that college is not as expensive as people think it is. But they overlook a substantial problem: for many students, the real price of college is much higher than what recruitment literature, conventional wisdom, and even official statistics convey. Our research indicates that the current approach to higher education financing too often leaves low-income students facing unexpected, and sometimes untenable, expenses.Financial challenges are a consistent predictor of non-completion in higher education, and they are becoming more severe over time. Unexpected costs, even those that might appear modest in size, can derail students from families lacking financial cushions, and even those with greater family resources. Improving college completion rates requires both lowering the real price of attending college -- the student's remaining total costs, including tuition, books, and living expenses, after financial aid -- to better align with students' and families' ability to pay, and providing accurate information to help them plan to cover the real price of college.Many policymakers argue that bringing the personal and public benefits of higher education to an expanded population of Americans is important for the economy and to address inequality. Financial aid policies, they assume, help those with scarce resources to earn their degrees. But these policies often fall short, and when students have difficulty paying for college, they are more likely to focus their energies on working and raising funds rather than studying and attending classes, and are less likely to complete their degrees.

The Real Value of What Students Do In College: College Completion Series: Part One

February 25, 2016

This report takes a look at how government officials have pressed college accreditors to focus more on "student outcomes" -- quantifiable indicators of knowledge acquired, skills learned, degrees attained, and so on. It then argues that it is not these enumerated outcomes that are the best way to hold colleges accountable, but rather the evidence of student engagement in the curriculum -- their papers, written examinations, projects, and presentations -- that holds the most promise for spurring improvement in higher education. Furthermore, this engagement is also a key factor in keeping students in school all the way to graduation. The report concludes that reformers seeking to enhance college performance and accountability should focus not on fabricated outcome measures but instead on the actual outputs from students' academic engagement, the best indicators of whether a college is providing the quality teaching, financial aid, and supportive environment that make higher learning possible, especially for the disadvantaged.This report is the first of a series from The Century Foundation, sponsored by Pearson. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Pearson. The series grew out of an August 2014 conference at which researchers and several university presidents were exploring new paths to diversity in higher education in light of emerging legal constraints on race-based affirmative action. As participants discussed ideas to ensure access for low-income and minority students, university leaders were equally concerned about how to improve rates of college graduation by disadvantaged students.

How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students

February 9, 2016

A growing number of parents, university officials, and employers want our elementary and secondary schools to better prepare students for our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society and the global economy. But for reasons we cannot explain, the demands of this large segment of Americans have yet to resonate with most of our federal, state, or local policymakers. Instead, over the past forty years, these policy makers have completely ignored issues of racial segregation while focusing almost exclusively on high-stakes accountability, even as our schools have become increasingly segregated and unequal.This report argues that, as our K -- 12 student population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, the time is right for our political leaders to pay more attention to the evidence, intuition, and common sense that supports the importance of racially and ethnically diverse educational settings to prepare the next generation. It highlights in particular the large body of research that demonstrates the important educational benefits -- cognitive, social, and emotional -- for all students who interact with classmates from different backgrounds, cultures, and orientations to the world. This research legitimizes the intuition of millions of Americans who recognize that, as the nation becomes more racially and ethnically complex, our schools should reflect that diversity and tap into the benefits of these more diverse schools to better educate all our students for the twenty-first century.The advocates of racially integrated schools understand that much of the recent racial tension and unrest in this nation -- from Ferguson to Baltimore to Staten Island -- may well have been avoided if more children had attended schools that taught them to address implicit biases related to racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. This report supports this argument beyond any reasonable doubt.

A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity

February 9, 2016

Students in racially and socioeconomically integrated schools experience academic, cognitive, and social benefits that are not available to students in racially isolated, high-poverty environments. A large body of research going back five decades underscores the improved experiences that integrated schools provide. And yet, more than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, American public schools are still highly segregated by both race and class. In fact, by most measures of integration, our public schools are worse off, since they are now even more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s, and economic segregation in schools has risen dramatically over the past two decades.In this report, we highlight the work that school districts and charter schools across the country are doing to promote socioeconomic and racial integration by considering socioeconomic factors in student assignment policies.Key findings of this report include:Our research has identified a total of 91 districts and charter networks across the country that use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment. The 91 school districts and charter schools with socioeconomic integration policies enroll over 4 million students. The school districts and charter networks identified as employing socioeconomic integration are located in 32 different states. The majority of districts and charters on the list have racially and socioeconomically diverse enrollments. The majority of the integration strategies observed fall into five main categories: attendance zone boundaries, district-wide choice policies, magnet school admissions, charter school admissions, and transfer policies.The push toward socioeconomic and racial integration is perhaps the most important challenge facing American public schools. Segregation impedes the ability of children to prepare for an increasingly diverse workforce; to function tolerantly and enthusiastically in a globalizing society; to lead, follow, and communicate with a wide variety of consumers, colleagues, and friends. The democratic principles of this nation are impossible to reach without universal access to a diverse, high quality, and engaging education.

The New Opiate Epidemic

February 4, 2016

On the subject of narcotics, American public discourse is prone to alarmism, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the United States is currently experiencing an epidemic of opiate addiction. To be exact, we are in the grip of two related epidemics: one involving legal, regulated prescription painkillers, and the other involving black market heroin. Chemically, these two types of drugs have a great deal in common, and both are devastatingly addictive. But the rise in pill addiction and the rise in heroin addiction are linked on a deeper causal level, as well.Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than car accidents, and most of those overdoses are from opiates. Heroin-related deaths have quadrupled since 2000, leading to what the New York Times has suggested may be "the worst drug overdose epidemic in United States history." Former attorney general Eric Holder described the rise in heroin addiction as a "public health crisis," with heroin overdoses leading to 10,574 deaths in 2014.But in fact, the spike in heroin abuse is an outgrowth of a much broader and in some ways more pernicious problem -- the widespread addiction to prescription painkillers. Pharmaceutical opioid overdoses have also quadrupled since 2000, leading to 18,893 deaths in 2014 -- almost double the number of heroin overdoses for the same year. The suppliers of these drugs are not street-corner dealers, but ostensibly respectable physicians, and behind them, multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical companies, with squadrons of lawyers and lobbyists.

Egypt Adrift Five Years After The Uprising

January 26, 2016

As Egypt approaches the fifth anniversary of its 2011 uprising, one would be forgiven for assuming that a major challenge to the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was gathering coherence and force, based upon its panicked and paranoid current actions. But such a conclusion would be misplaced. The regime's overblown fears of a largely neutered opposition raise a pertinent question: What is driving the Egyptian security establishment's overbroad and suffocating repression?The run-up to January 25 has seen a major crackdown that has included arrests, disappearances, random searches (including random surveillance of social media accounts), the shuttering of nonpolitical cultural fora, such as art galleries, and a heightening of visa monitoring for foreigners. For this upcoming symbolic date, the regime will not be caught unaware and flat-footed -- it believes that the mistakes of 2011 will not be repeated any time soon.Speaking to Reuters, an official at Egypt's Homeland Security Agency explained the state's motivations for the crackdown quite bluntly, stating that "We have taken several measures to ensure activists don't have breathing space and are unable to gather, and several cafes and other meeting places have been closed, while some have been arrested in order to scare the rest."Whereas late 2010 was marked by creeping dissatisfaction, increasing boldness, and stepped-up organizational efforts among opposition actors, there are no corollaries in today's Egypt. While the government continues to fare poorly in terms of overall performance, political life is stunted by fear and fragmentation, and there are few avenues that allow for the amplification of dissatisfaction into a broad-based challenge to the regime. Opposition forces are fragmented and intimidated, while the regime, the state, and social elites retain a baseline of cohesion, and domestic and regional instability have produced quiescence in some sectors of society.It is clear that 2016 will not be the year of the next Egyptian uprising, let alone revolution. Yet, despite indications that, for the time being, the regime is safe from any popular threat, it is behaving as if it faces an imminent challenge. Its actions reveal a deeply ingrained worldview in which even minor forms of dissent and nonconformity are no longer permissible.