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SMERCONISH

Was Rachel Nichols' Complaint About ESPN Racist?; Hunter Biden's Artwork Sale Raises Ethics Concerns; Elie Honig on His New Book About Bill Barr "Hatchet Man"; Did America Lose The War In Afghanistan?; Should Parents Be Allowed To Give Kids A "Do-Over" School Year. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired July 10, 2021 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00]

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: Is it necessarily racist? I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. The reason the controversy about Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor at "ESPN" received so much attention this week is that the issues transcend the sports cable outlet and offer a window into so many of our workplaces. In case you missed the kerfuffle, it's a story about one employee, Nichols, thinking she was denied a gig or an opportunity in favor of another, Taylor, and that race somehow played a factor.

It raises an interesting question, namely is it necessarily racist when a white employee questions the hiring or elevation of a minority colleague? A quick recap of the facts. It was July of 2020, so a year ago, that Nichols had a conversation with two representatives of LeBron James she was seeking an interview. Adam Mendelsohn, James' long-time advisor was one. Rich Paul, James' agent was the other.

And Nichols seized the opportunity to ask for some personal career advice. She wanted to know how to respond to "ESPN"'s decision to have the NBA final coverage hosted by her colleague, Taylor, who is black, even though Nichols had been contractually promised that gig.

Unbeknownst to her, because of the broadcast equipment in her Disney World hotel room, the call, which she thought was private, was recorded to a server at "ESPN" headquarters and somebody saw it, recorded it on a cell phone. Within hours, it reached "ESPN" brass. By the way, to me, that's the most egregious aspect of this story, that someone saw fit to record and distribute a private conversation without her consent. Now it's in the public domain and here's what she said that caused a ruckus.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RACHEL NICHOLS, ESPN REPORTER: I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world. She covers football, she covers basketball. If you need to give her more things to do because you're feeling pressure about your, like, crappy longtime record on diversity -- which, by the way, I myself, like, know personally from the female side of it -- like, go for it. Just, you know, find it somewhere else. Like, you're not going to find it with me and taking my thing away.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: There was a lot of online debate about Nichols' remark, perhaps best illustrated by this one brief exchange in the comment section that I saw on "The Washington Post." One person said, "There's no racism here. Point it out to me. What did Rachel say that was racist?" The response? The response was this, "She said that Taylor got the assignment because of 'ESPN''s diversity efforts -- the pressure they are feeling. She attributed Taylor's success merely to the color of her skin and that is racism."

Nichols has since apologized on air. "ESPN" then released a statement to "The New York Times" saying, quote, "A diverse group of executives thoroughly and fairly considered all of the facts related to the incident and then addressed the situation appropriately. We're proud of the coverage we continue to produce, and our focus will remain on Maria, Rachel and the rest of the talented team collectively serving NBA fans."

How could Nichols have framed the issue without being subjected to the charge of racism or is that impossible in today's climate? I want to know what you think. Go to my website. This is this week's survey question at Smerconish.com. Were Rachel Nichols' comments regarding Maria Taylor justified or were they inappropriate?

Joining me now is Don Peebles. He's the founder and chair of the Peebles Corporation. That's a multibillion-dollar venture that's the largest black-owned real estate development company in the U.S. Matter of fact, in 2009, "Forbes" listed him in the top 10 of wealthiest black Americans. He served on the National Finance Committee of President Obama and also is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and if that's not enough, he is also the author of the best-selling book "The Peebles Principles."

Don, great to have you back. When you first heard what Rachel Nichols had said, what ran through your mind?

DON PEEBLES, FOUNDER & CHAIRMAN, THE PEEBLES CORPORATION: First, I thought invasion of privacy. I did -- she did not expect her conversation to be overheard. She was expressing frustration of a lost opportunity that she thought she earned and deserved in a private conversation and the fact that that was aired, I believe, is very inappropriate.

So that was the first thing that happened and the second thing that came to mind is the question about what many African-Americans, including my company and I experience, is that people make a presumption because the pendulum is swinging to become much more equalized in America that somehow African-Americans get their opportunity mainly or primarily because of their race and the desire to create a more equitable society and that marginalizes us as business people or professionals.

So those two things and both, you know, one's clear-cut and one's a little more complicated.

SMERCONISH: Yes. I agree and subject to a lot of different interpretation. For what it's worth, what I heard was Rachel Nichols saying, hey, I get it, "ESPN" has a poor track record on diversity and I myself as a female have been victimized by it.

[09:05:01]

Don't let this now come at my expense.

PEEBLES: I agree. I think exactly what she said that she already had a contractual opportunity to perform these services and appear on air during these segments and it was taken away from her and I think she could have stopped there. Again, she did not think that she was being recorded and she was exploring -- it appears to me that she was exploring why.

And by the way, all of us express frustration in the privacy of our home or in private conversations and we don't expect them to be aired. Things are said about our relatives, our spouses, et cetera that we would never expect to be aired. So, I mean, I think that that is one element here. The fact that we're talking about her private conversation is certainly an invasion of her privacy but gives an illumination as to some of the things that African Americans, especially black women who have a double exposure to bias, are sensitive to.

SMERCONISH: This was a hot talker, as you can imagine, on radio. My own program this week, we got into it in depth, and I heard from a number of African American callers expressing this viewpoint, the viewpoint of, yes, I get it, this is what goes on when the doors are closed, right? That you'll get some white folks who will pay lip service to the notion of advancement for people of color, but when they're speaking among themselves, you know, this is the real deal.

PEEBLES: Yes, but that wasn't the case here. I mean, the reality here is that -- I mean, anybody who's competing in a very highly desirable profession or industry is going to be extremely competitive and they're going to fight for their opportunities and the idea that we should expect people to give up the opportunities that they worked hard to earn those opportunities for the sake of a more equitable society, I think it's more incumbent on "ESPN" and other companies to create broader opportunities for diverse employees and not at the expense of white employees.

Otherwise, we're going to continue to have this divided nation and our divided society. The idea is that we've got to expand opportunities and give people of color and give women a opportunity to develop skill sets and an opportunity to compete and so "ESPN" probably could have done this a lot better by simply expanding some opportunities and handling this last year and not letting it percolate for a year.

SMERCONISH: Rachel Nichols dealt with this on camera. Here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICHOLS: So the first thing they teach you in journalism school is don't be the story and I don't plan to break that rule today or distract from a fantastic finals, but I also don't want to let this moment pass without saying how much I respect, how much I value our colleagues here at "ESPN," how deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt, particularly Maria Taylor, and how grateful I am to be part of this outstanding team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I found that to be a pretty appropriate response. I'll be curious to hear what you think. I'm also wondering how will she be treated and regarded by players going forward? Will there be any move afoot that might shun her?

PEEBLES: One, by the way, apology accepted. I mean, in lies the double standard. The fact that we're still talking about it when she already apologized and if you look at some of the conduct that would be, you know, overtly unacceptable by people on the air who are men, I think she's judged differently, but I think case closed.

She was apologetic, she made a mistake, shouldn't define her, but it should not let "ESPN" off the hook for creating this kind of environment to where you're pitting two women against each other as opposed to expanding opportunities. There's plenty of opportunities at "ESPN" to go around and they need to expand more of those for women and I think that's the solution here.

SMERCONISH: Hey, quick final comment. The guy who dodged a figurative bullet, I think, is Adam Mendelsohn. Catherine, quickly put up on the screen. On any other day, we'd probably be talking about an advisor to LeBron James who said, "I don't know. I'm exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left." Quick comment from you, Don?

PEEBLES: I found that offensive and I found that strikingly offensive given that his top client is LeBron James who is African American and the best basketball player in the world right now. So I agree with you. I think, in fact, he's dodged a bullet.

Maybe we bring that up because I think that that tells you something, that he's representing LeBron James and he doesn't feel compelled to take affirmative steps to level the playing field, which is what Black Lives Matter is all about, and to provide a safe workplace for women, which is what the Me Too Movement is all about, and that he's got nothing left, then he should quit.

[09:10:02]

SMERCONISH: First thing you've said that I disagree with. Joel Embiid. I'm referring to your comment about LeBron being the best in the world. Thank you so much for being here.

PEEBLES: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish. Go to my Facebook page. I will read some responses throughout the course of the program. This comes, I think, from Facebook. "Unprofessionally honest, bordering on insulting. Hard for this white guy to say it wasn't racist. Unfair of me to try."

I thought that Don had it when he said that the way in which Rachel addressed it on camera, which we showed you, makes it a case closed. What I find so fascinating, as exemplified by the calls that I had this week on radio about it, is that everybody's got a story in their workplace. Black, white, Asian, Latino, doesn't matter. Everybody has some skin in this game and a different perspective.

In any event, I want to know what you think. Go to my website at Smerconish.com. Now we've aired it. Tell me, were Rachel Nichols' comments regarding Maria Taylor, were they justified, right? I mean, she had the gig and wasn't going to get it. Or were they inappropriate where there was the reference to diversity?

Up ahead, would you pay a $0.5 million for a Hunter Biden original? Can the President's son pursue his painting career without creating an ethical dilemma?

Plus, the pandemic scrambled learning for public school students nationwide. Educators and students did their best to adapt, but now some states are offering families the chance for a do-over. Is that a good idea?

And President Biden announced this week that the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will end on August 31st, but after nearly 20 years of war, did we win or lose? We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: The Biden administration dealing with a unique dilemma arising from Hunter Biden's new career as a full-time artist. The President's son set to start selling his artwork in September for prices as high as $0.5 million, but how do you prevent a purchaser paying too much so as to ingratiate themselves with the first family? Sources tell CNN the White House was involved in forming a plan to address any ethics concerns and allow Hunter Biden, a former lawyer who has struggled with addiction, to pursue his new art career.

"The Washington Post" was the first to report on the White House involvement. Biden's art will be shown in the George Burgess Gallery in New York.

His bio on the gallery's website describes him as follows, "A lifelong artist that has devoted his artistic career to both the written word and the visual arts. A lawyer by trade who now devotes his life to the creative arts. He brings a myriad of experiences, creating powerful and impactful pieces of art. He incorporates oil, acrylic, ink and the written word within his work to create a distinctively unique experience that have become the signature Biden."

Under the agreement, George Burgess will set the prices, shield the identities of those who make bids and reject any offer that he deems suspicious or that comes in over the asking price and if a buyer's identity does become public, White House officials should be warned against giving that person any preferential treatment and could be discouraged from working with them at all.

However, ethics experts have an issue with the fact that there's no clear method in place to enforce the standards agreed upon by the gallery and the prospective buyers. Other critics simply question is the art even worth it? New York art gallery owner Marc Straus says for someone who has no professional training and has never sold art on the commercial market, no one would ever start at these prices. He also says the paintings weren't bad at all, but there's a yawning gap between not bad and something fabulous.

On the other side, Jerry Saltz, critic at the "New York Magazine," merely describes the works as generic post-zombie formalism illustration.

Meanwhile, President Biden has said he's committed to upholding stricter barriers between family governance -- family and governance than existed under his predecessor, former President Trump. White House spokesman Andrew Bates says, "The President has established the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history and his family's commitment to rigorous processes like this is a prime example."

Joining me now to discuss, CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig, author of the just published book "Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor's Code and Corrupted the Justice Department." Elie, I know you have a best seller on your hand. Are you eager to take your advance and slap it down on a Hunter Biden original?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST/AUTHOR, "Hatchet Man": Michael, I don't really have high end taste in art. Mostly my taste run to framed pictures of Bruce Springsteen in concert. However, I think the problem here is this just looks terrible, right? The art experts that you mentioned make clear that there's no way, if this person's name was anything other than Biden, his art would be put on sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So it looks terrible for the White House and they've got a complicated ethics problem on their hands now.

SMERCONISH: So I think they're going about it in complete reverse. First of all, I think that Hunter Biden is entitled to earn a living and to command from the marketplace the fair value of the art, but it should be entirely transparent. How can you rely on the owner of an art gallery -- no disrespect -- to police this process, that if an offer is suspicious, then he's going to weed it out? And, Elie, if you were to buy it and entertain me at your house and I see it on the wall, how are you going to prevent me from going out and discuss it?

[09:20:00]

The answer is full transparency. Let him sell the art, just let the whole world watch the process.

HONIG: Yes. I think this process the White House has put in place is well intentioned, but it's not going to do the trick. They say we're not going to disclose the name of whoever buys it. OK, but that person can go put it up and say, hey, everyone, it's me. Put it on -- put it on Twitter, whatever, right? So it doesn't really do the trick.

I think the problem here, what makes it tricky, is Hunter Biden is not subject to government ethics rules. He doesn't work for the government. You can put rules on the White House, but there's the problem and I think full transparency -- look, full transparency is never a bad idea. I know that from my career as a prosecutor. As long as you're not putting anyone in danger, let people know, give people all the facts, let them see, but appearances really matter here and, again, that's consistent with my career as a prosecutor.

Even if they manage to somehow put procedures in place that would protect this, that would make people feel a little better about it, it looks terrible and that really matters. You can't have people thinking that relatives of the president are trading on that last name, trading on access.

SMERCONISH: For all the people right now shouting at their televisions, the whataboutas, well, what about the Trumps? Well, it wasn't right then. We're just trying to prevent a similar ethical lapse going forward. I want to switch gears. I want to -- I do want to ask you about your book, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed. Question. Why did Bill Barr want the gig? In other words, his reputation was intact, he was financially secure having served as Attorney General for Bush 41. Why did he ever come back on Donald Trump's watch?

HONIG: Yes. That's a great question, one I address in the book. I think there's an expected and an unexpected answer. The expected answer is he was a legal and is a legal extremist. He is of the view, Bill Barr, that the president should be more powerful than of course anybody else in the executive branch, but really in the entire government.

The problem is Bill Barr took that to an absurd extreme where he put the president, Donald Trump, not just above any law, but above any possible subpoena, any possible investigation. He made it to the point where Donald Trump could not be touched and he really saved Donald Trump's hide. That's his extreme view of the law.

What I found really shocking, though, is when we dug in, we found that Bill Barr has made some extreme statements about his view on the role of religion in government. He talked in his earlier writings and speeches about the need for, and I quote, "God's law to prevail as the law of the nation." He said the only way to run an orderly society is by religious order. So Bill Barr really brought not just an extreme legal view, but an extreme personal and religious view that he sought to install through his vast power as Attorney General.

SMERCONISH: Remember, he left at Christmas, right?

HONIG: Yes.

SMERCONISH: There were still 20, 30 days left in the Trump administration. I always suspected and said so on air at the time that he wanted no part of those final days. Was that not redeeming in a sense? I mean, that he really wasn't there for that execution of the so-called Big Lie?

HONIG: Yes. Bill Barr left in late December. As you say, Michael, that's very unusual. I think it was clear to any rational person, and certainly Bill Barr is a rational person, that things were going to get even worse. I refuse to give Bill Barr credit though. He did, very late in the game, say there's no evidence of election fraud after the election in December. I'll give him a modicum of credit for that.

The problem and what he's trying to leave out, what I do not leave out of the book, is the fact that for months leading up to the election, Bill Barr was one of the leading cheerleaders for the lie of election fraud. He repeated it multiple times on national TV, he said it in Congress. Every time he got called out or asked, what's your proof of this? His answer was none, but it's just common sense, it's something I know.

I mean, Michael, if I ever tried to say that in court to a judge, I would have got my head ripped off and it would have been a mess because if you're going to make a statement like that, you have to have evidence. I'm not buying the revisionist history from Bill Barr.

SMERCONISH: Congrats on the book. Imagine what the people at "Rate My Room" would say if you had a nice Hunter Biden original right over your shoulder as we speak. Thank you, Elie.

HONIG: I refuse to pander to them. Thanks, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Let's see what you're saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. From the world of Twitter, what do we have? "@Smerconish, Hey, Trump -- hey, Trump," -- no, I should read it this way. I should read it this way. "Hey, Trump water boy, does Hunter work in the White House and is he making millions and getting," -- I'm not against Hunter. Like, were you not listening?

I'm all for Hunter earning a living. He's entitled to earn a living. You just need to -- this is a tale as old as time. Like, these sort of issues go back as far as Billy Beer. Anybody remember Billy Beer? I mean, Jimmy Carter had to deal with this sort of a thing on his watch. It's very, very hard to set the parameters for the -- for the -- yes, there you go -- for the family members. I'm for Hunter. I want Hunter recovered and earning a great keep.

The issue is how do you set it up in a way that is not going to fuel the conspiracy theorists and give fodder to "Fox" for the next year? And the way to do it is the complete opposite of the way they're about to do it. Oh, the gallery owner, he's going to police this? You got to be joking.

[09:25:02]

Transparency. Let us all watch like it's Sotheby's or Christie's or Freeman's here in Philadelphia.

I'd like to remind you all to please go to my website, Smerconish.com, and answer this week's survey question. Were Rachel Nichols' comments regarding Maria Taylor justified or inappropriate?

Up ahead, the pandemic took its toll on students' test scores and grades thanks to remote learning and all that it entailed. So in some states, they're being allowed a mulligan to do the whole year over. Is that a good idea?

And as the U.S. plans its withdrawal from the 20-year long Afghanistan conflict, the Taliban claims it already controls 85 percent of the country. Does that mean America lost the war?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:30:05]

SMERCONISH: Did America just lose another war? Despite the fact that nobody wants to talk about it, this week, President Biden pledged the 20-year U.S. operation in Afghanistan would end on August 31st, with all troops out by September 11. The president said this --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: But the rapid departure is coinciding with reports of gains by the Taliban and concerns about a civil war. This week, the Taliban claimed it controls 85 percent of the territory in Afghanistan. A reporter asked the president about this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

BIDEN: No, it is not.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why?

BIDEN: Because you have -- the Afghan troops have 300,000 well- equipped -- as well-equipped as any army in the world and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: So what was our objective? And did we achieve it? In other words, did America lose the Afghanistan war?

Joining me now is Dr. Carter Malkasian. He served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, was senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. He's the author of the just published book "The American War in Afghanistan: A History" which contains, by the way, a passage that I think sums up, Dr. Malkasian, your thesis. Can we put that up on the screen because it's this?

"Even though Islam preaches unity, justice and peace, the Taliban were able to tie themselves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match."

I know it's hard to distill an entire book down to one sentence but is that really the core of it?

CARTER MALKASIAN, AUTHOR, "THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY": Thank you, Michael. Yes, that's -- I think this is a very important point. There's, of course, many reasons as to why we had difficulties in Afghanistan, but I don't think that we can responsibly forget that a large part of this is that we came in and it was very easy for the Taliban to point to us as occupiers.

Afghanistan has a history of resisting occupation and resisting occupiers that came in. And this was a motivational factor that helped them. And the government, as long as it was aligned with us had trouble matching that.

And I don't think it's a hard thing to understand. It's something we've encountered in previous wars such as Vietnam, and one could cite in our own American war of independence.

SMERCONISH: What's your answer to the question that was put to the president? Is it inevitable that the Taliban will control Afghanistan?

MALKASIAN: No, it's not inevitable. So I agree with the president. There are some situations here where the government could continue to fight on and the Taliban control a great amount of territory as you mentioned, but until they take Kabul and take the major cities it's not clear that the government hasn't fallen until those events happen. But that said, the future for the Afghan government looks grim.

And there also are a variety of scenarios in which the Taliban could take over the country in which the momentum they have now continues, they march into cities like Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif and then they make their way into Kabul. And as the Taliban make more gains it creates more shocks to the system of the Afghan security forces. It makes it harder for them to stand and fight. And I think a sports team that suffers defeat after defeat, the coach is going to be concerned about getting up their spirit, getting up the morale and getting some wins and that's the kind of situation that the Afghan forces are in.

SMERCONISH: Is it fair -- is it fair in the end to cast this in one or lost terms? And by that, I mean, what if the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan? That will be perceived as a military loss for the United States. But does that necessarily mean we shouldn't have gone in? Because after all, we had to go in to kill those responsible for the events of September 11.

MALKASIAN: I think the really difficult thing here about Afghanistan is, just as you say, we may have had to go in, even if that meant in the end, it was going to look like a loss or maybe even be a loss. And our major goal, like the president said, was to prevent attacks to the United States and to counterterrorism. For 20 years that was fairly effectively done. In that sense, we can say that we met our objectives.

However, if in the future, the terrorist threat returns and there's problems for the United States, then we would say we didn't meet our objectives. And there are other things we wanted to do like enable the Afghan government to stand on its own, and those weren't attained.

[09:35:00]

And because the attention of our aim isn't clear, it becomes very hard to argue to any America that we won and it becomes very hard to counter the argument that we lost. And it's just the hard truth of the matter.

SMERCONISH: Dr. Malkasian, one final question, hindsight is always 2020, but isn't a fair conclusion to reach that maybe a surgical approach, a sniper's approach, not a shotgun blast -- in other words, to have viewed this as a law enforcement measure, not to go in and try and nation-build. I know the president said we were never there to nation-build -- I just lost him?

OK. Well, can I complete my thought anyway? I'll just personalize it and say that my own conclusion having been supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan is that in retrospect what would have been better is a much more surgical strike at those responsible for the events of September 11 without going in and try to change a government.

I think we always conclude, mistakenly, if they only had democracy. If they only had democracy in Vietnam, if they only had democracy in Iraq, if they only had democracy in Afghanistan that would be the salve to what ails -- what -- the ills of the United States. But we overlook the fact that they might just elect regimes that hate us.

Anyway, thank you, doctor. I appreciate it. Sorry we lost your feed.

Let's check in on your tweets and your Facebook comments. This comes from the world of Twitter, I think.

Time will only tell. Unfortunately if the wrong people will die and or Americans will be attacked I think we should kept a small portion of troops in Afghanistan to make sure the Taliban -- yes, but for how long? For how long?

You'd be keeping them there in perpetuity. Let's also acknowledge this, we have very short frames of reference. We're not like the Chinese. They think in 50-year and 100-year increments. We think in 240 character Twitter sound bites in this country.

I want to remind you to answer the survey at my Web site, Smerconish.com. And, by the way, I should remind you what it is that we're discussing here because I laid it out in the first segment of the program. ESPN's Rachel Nichols was surreptitiously recorded speaking about a colleague. Here's what she said.

"I wish Maria Taylor all of the success in the world. She covers football, she covers basketball. If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it -- like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away."

So here's the question, were her comments regarding a colleague justified or were they inappropriate? Go vote at Smerconish.com.

Still to come, because of the pandemic and the chaos of remote learning, many students had a really tough school year. But should parents now be permitted to allow their children to take a do-over year or will that create even more long term problems for America's battered educational system?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:42:38]

SMERCONISH: Should parents be allowed to give their children the chance for a do-over? The pandemic wreaked havoc on schools across the country as students and teachers had to tackle not just the subject matter at hand but remote learning as well. And clearly the quality of education suffered.

As an article in "Education Week" put it -- quote -- "Educators have watched with alarm as absenteeism and course-failure rates soared during the COVID-19 crisis. Students' schoolwork has often lost duels with family crises, poor internet, and their own sagging motivation." In a survey this April, by that publication's research center, 42 percent of teachers and administrators said they expected more students would repeat a grade than would have done so before the pandemic.

In Texas, the Dallas Independent School District reported last fall that 30 percent of its students lost learning in reading, 50 percent had lost learning in math. And to deal with this unprecedented situation some state legislatures and school boards around the country have passed or are considering special measures.

In Washington State they're allowing high school classes in the graduating classes of 2021 and 2022 to stay in school for a bridge year to catch up on learning and participate in missed extracurricular activities. In Kentucky each school district can decide whether its K- 12 students would have the option to complete a do-over of their school year. And here in my home state of Pennsylvania parents of K-12 students have sole authority to decide by July 15 if their children should repeat a year. And the school, whether public or private, must honor that choice.

Are these good ideas? What will be the long-term impact? Joining me now to discuss is Allison Socol, assistant director of P-12 Policy for the Education Trust, that's a non-profit focused on education equity.

Allison, thanks for being here. I had a person call my radio program yesterday, a kindergarten mom, who said that a number of the kindergarten parents had held their students back during the pandemic. And she was explaining to me how this is going to create sort of a bubble class that will go through the next 12 years of education, tapping resources in a way that hadn't been done previously. My point is there are a lot of ramifications of this subject that we're discussing.

ALLISON SOCOL, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF P-12 POLICY, THE EDUCATION TRUST: That's right.

[09:45:00]

And I think when you hear parents and state and district leaders consider retention what is at the heart of that is an acknowledgement that the last year has been really, really hard for so many students and families, particularly families of color and families from low- income background. But state and district leaders and parents should really be using caution when thinking about retention policies which research suggests disproportionately affect black and Latino students. And can be harmful to students especially in middle and high school.

Research shows that it can impact students' self-esteem. In middle school it can increase the probability that students will drop out. And frankly, it's a really costly educational intervention. It can cost more than $10,000 a year per pupil. And there are evidence-based strategies that are much more effective and much more cost effective.

SMERCONISH: In my home state of Pennsylvania, it's a parent's decision, you know, there's no signoff required from an educator, from a teacher. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but if I say, well, there needs to be input from the school. Then I don't know, have we just laid on an additional test or assessment? What are your thoughts as to whether a parent's determination alone should be sufficient as to whether a student repeats the grade based on the pandemic?

SOCOL: I mean, parents know their children best. And any educational decision about children should be made in partnership with parents. But faced with that really difficult decision, there are some critical questions that parents should be asking before they make a decision to retain their child.

Particularly, the federal government is providing an additional $125 billion to states and school districts through the American Recovery Plan and that money -- a big portion of that money, 5 percent of the state money and 20 percent of the money the districts are getting has to be used to address students' unfinished learning and to meet their social and emotional and academic needs. And so parents can be asking their district and state leaders, what is that money going to be used for? What additional support, retention or not retention is my child going to get? Will they be receiving what research shows are the most effective supports, targeted intensive tutoring, extended learning time with trained and supported teachers and tutors who can provide those students with the specific skills and supports they need to succeed and who will build lasting and meaningful relationships with kids?

SMERCONISH: Do you worry that parents might try and game the ability to hold a child back due to the pandemic, game it for athletic purposes? Or game it for college admission purposes to try and get another year under the belt of their son or daughter with that reason in mind?

SOCOL: I think the most important question at hand here and I suspect what most parents are really thinking about is the unfinished learning that had happened in the last year. And it has frankly exacerbated the inequities that have existed in our education system for a long time, particularly for students of color. And that the thing that parents and education leaders should really be focusing on is how to use their resources particularly this huge amount of additional resources from the federal government to focus on getting kids the supports they need to succeed academically.

SMERCONISH: Allison Socol, thank you so much for being here.

SOCOL: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. And the final result, this will be interesting, of the survey question at Smerconish.com. It was the hottest talker of the week. Were Rachel Nichols' comments regarding Maria Taylor justified or were they inappropriate? Go vote, if you haven't already.

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[09:53:15]

SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question this week at Smerconish.com. Were Rachel Nichols' comments regarding Maria Taylor justified or were they inappropriate?

Here are the results. Oh, very interesting. Can we call it two-thirds with more than 11,000 votes cast? More than two-thirds said justified. I guess justified because, hey, she had a contractual deal where this was to be her responsibility. Now, it was going to be taken away from her. One-third saying contrary to that. Because she introduced the subject of race, therefore, she crossed the line.

I like what Don Peebles had to say. She offered an appropriate apology, even if the apology wasn't necessary, and that should end this chapter.

What else came in? Let's take a look.

Is it racist to defend your own career? Is it racist to defend your -- well, that's the issue that I was raising. You know, is it, by definition, if you're someone who is white, who believes that you've lost an opportunity to someone of color, and you're raising that fact, is that in and of itself racist? That's the issue that we were just discussing and I guess two-thirds of the audience said, by definition, no.

What else came in? Sad you cannot have a private conversation in this Soviet Union -- oops, the United States. Technology is dividing us.

Moesmom, I said the same thing. The thing we ought to all be able to agree on in this story is that someone surreptitiously recording her on a cell phone and distributing it I think is disgusting.

Next comment. What do we have? Moving quickly today, we're trying to.

Who would buy the Hunter Biden paintings for $500,000 if his father wasn't the president of the United States? No one.

[09:55:00]

If his art is that good he could have used an alias and just be fine. He is clearly banking on his -- well, there's no doubt the value of his artwork -- it's not -- there are a number of celebrities who paint. There are a number of people who are notable who paint. And the value -- I'll flip the table on this. The value is always greater because it's a name. So should he not be able to benefit from this?

I have the right prescription. The worst prescription is what they're going to do. Somehow, keep secret the identity of the purchaser. And what? You go to the person's house and you can't talk about it? That will never work -- transparency.

One more, Catherine. I'm almost out of time. What do we have?

I don't want to see my grandchildren fighting in a country they never heard of. People need to remember 15 to the 20 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. None were from Afghanistan or part of the Taliban. That, sir, is true. And that's all I have to say. See you next week.

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