Friday, October 20, 2017

Make America Progress Again

Take our country back. Make America Great Again. These are slogans we’ve heard a lot in the last few years, and they confuse me. They make me wonder who owns the country now, and who they believe should own America. Does it belong to one group? Is it for some citizens and not others? And when we discuss making American great again, what exactly are we trying to return to? What exactly do they feel is wrong with it in the present, and what made it great in the past? Cassette tapes? Dial-up internet? Mercurocrome? Segregation?

I actually find this notion somewhat humorous. Somehow, going back to the way things used to be is what will make our society great. It sounds a little like trading in your smartphone for a rotary or trying to cure Leukemia with bloodletting and leaches. I kind of get it, though. Sometimes I find myself getting nostalgic about the past. Fond memories of trying to tape new favorite songs off of the radio using my cassette player. My first CD player. The red stuff my aunt put on cuts that burned like Hell. Maybe people look at America’s past, the good and bad, in a similar way. The good ole days!

Unfortunately, I think this ends up being more about power and restraint. We are in the midst of a massive culture war. No longer are we really discussing issues, offering ideas, and working mutually toward real solutions. We are fighting over who this country “belongs to”. That’s insane. It implies that America is only really available to certain groups. It implies that we are not equal under the law; that we do not have the same rights. It implies that one group or set of demographics really are the only ones who should be at the helm, steering our society in the direction that they see fit. What about the other voices? The other religions and cultural groups? Are they not also Americans? People look at the symbols of modern American society and they see gay people able to marry and adopt children. They see Latin Americans speaking their native language at the bank. Their pumpkin spice latte was made by a woman in a hijab. They see an African American man who had been elected president twice! They see a changed America, and they no longer recognize it. They long for the days where the president was named Bill, Jimmy, Ronald, or George—not Barack. They want their country back, but fail to acknowledge that they are not taking it back from some foreign group. These are other Americans. Real Americans. They also have rights. They also can hold public office. They also have the right to pray however they like. They also can be movie stars and college professors. This is not a white country. This is not a Christian nation. Diversity is what makes us what we are. E pluribus unum—from many, one. This is why we have an inclusive democratic republic, not an oligarchy.

Longing for the past does us no good. People want to return to a time when they believe we were great. But what made us great then, ironically, was change. To some, progress is a dirty word. It is synonymous with “liberal”. But that’s not true. Plenty of conservative and liberal people alike, back through our history, have been progressive. Progress simply means that we continue to better ourselves. That is the American spirit. The founders made our Constitution and our government flexible so that we may evolve with the times. Society will always change. So will technology. Every living thing in the world must adapt, or else it dies. The same is true about our country and our society. We must evolve and adapt if we are to survive. Attempting to remain complacent, or even regress will be our doom. Every great era that people long for was great because we had progressed to that point. We were the most innovative country in the world, daring to experiment with a new type of government; throwing off the shackles of tyranny and doing something different. And we’ve inspired countries all over the world to do the same. We remained on the cutting edge of society, humanity, technology, and standard of living. It made us wealthy, cultured, and educated. We were pioneers. We progressed. We improved. So why would we ever seek to regress or to go stale? It’s time for a different narrative than we are having now; one of warring factions and identity politics. Maybe we should all recognize again that progressivism is something we can all embrace. It’s something that made our society great. Maybe instead of shouting “Make America Great Again”, we should start trying to “Improve America for the Greater Good Again.”

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

House Bill 610 and the Coming Education Death Spiral

Somehow, with everyone screaming about the future of Obamacare, a bill quietly slipped through the House of Representatives that I still have yet to see covered by mainstream media. House Bill 610 would repeal Johnson’s landmark education bill, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This is a law that mandates that every child have an equitable opportunity to receive a free public education, and prohibits any discrimination of a child on the basis of, well, anything—skin color, his or her last name, religion, disability, gender, etc. Not only does it prohibit such discrimination, it requires states and school districts to work to close “achievement gaps” created by differences in demographics. Furthermore, ESEA will be replaced with a law that turns every state’s education into a voucher system.

Let me explain. We live in an America where we pretend we have achieved total equality, yet our cities and towns are mostly still segregated by race and ethnicity. When schools began to desegregate in the 1960s, white families founded private schools or fled to far-reaching suburbs and brought with them their buying power. Those communities thrived, while the black and Hispanic neighborhoods rotted. Not surprisingly, there are differences in economic prowess that befalls segregated neighborhoods. Decades of racially and ethnically-driven city and suburban development has led to lacking job opportunities in those neighborhoods, as well as underfunded schools and a variety of social problems that stem from poverty. As an educator, I’ve seen the yearly testing reports. The lowest-performing demographics with regard to standardized tests are consistently Latino, African American, Special Education, and kids with at-risk indicators. Thus, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ensures that we as educators work to help all kids reach their full potential, combatting the effects of poverty and disability on those opportunities.

The new law really doesn’t take any of that into account. In fact, it seems to discard the notion that there are really any differences between children in schools at all. The new law does away with funding for Advanced Placement classes and says nothing about the future of students with learning disabilities. Furthermore, there has been a change in the rhetoric behind what “equality” in education is. Instead of acknowledging the need to ensure equity for our children, and working to extent the same opportunities to the underserved, I have actually engaged in conversations with people who think that it is a violation of their children’s equal rights to not subsidize their private school education. So wait a minute. That’s a hardship? I’m discriminating against your child because it’s expensive for you to choose to send your kid to private school? Tell that to the mom working three jobs and still can’t provide enough food for her kid who goes to that underfunded elementary school that uses twenty-year old textbooks and pays their teachers $30,000 a year. And you want me to subsidize your private school tuition, or else it’s discrimination? How oppressed you are!

Never mind the obvious first amendment implications of using public funds to send your kid to a religious private schools. I’m going to explain to you precisely how this voucher thing plays out over the next ten years, should it actually become law. First we start with the comparison between private, charter, and public schools. It’s worth saying, first of all, that one of the downsides of individual states taking charge of their own education is that some of them suck at it. They either underfund it altogether, or they underfund impoverished areas while favoring more affluent ones. But in states and school districts that are adequately funded, and where educators are professional, put the child first, and use the latest research and techniques to genuinely improve achievement, charters don’t really do any better of a job. The data just isn’t there. I know in my school district, I’ve seen a number of students start the year over at that fancy charter school that teaches Mandarin, and end up back here. I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. You totally knew in your heart of hearts that charters are better. Maybe you live in one of those states that have sucked at education. Charters did great there. But it doesn’t make the case for a nationwide initiative to funnel public funds that way.

Private schools? I’ll say this. I went to private school from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I have nothing against that school or any private schools, really. I have some fond memories, and I’m grateful that my parents cared enough about my education to send me there. They felt that’s what was best for me.  But as a professional educator, I know that at bare minimum, the public school kids in my town probably got the same quality education, and for sure had a greater variety of courses offered. Private schools aren’t about quality of education. They’re about environment. Why else would you send your kid to a Christian Academy if you didn’t want your kid to simply go to school with other Christian kids and have a lesson delivered with a Christian slant? You wanted your kid to openly pray with the other kids. I get it. That’s your choice. But don’t pretend that your kid’s private education is about anything but environment, because it’s not about being educationally competitive with public schools.

So what happens when you start allowing parents to move their kids to a private or charter schools and take public money with them? It’s important to know that having “school choice” does not mean that the school is going to choose you back. Those charters and private schools have limits on availability and standards for admissions. It may be a lottery. It may be that the number of schools like this in your area are very limited. It may be that the richer kids can afford the thirty minute commute, where the less affluent kids don’t have that option. Who gets in? The smart kids? The kids with a cleaner home life? The ones whose parents can make donations to the football booster club? I bet it’s not the kids with single parents working three jobs. I bet the at-risk kids that have been in trouble a few times get passed over, although those are the ones who need the most from us. So the top kids go to the fancy schools, while the others go to the “dumb” schools. And don’t think kids who get passed over won’t wonder why they don’t get to go to the nice schools.

The next step is a matter of supply and demand. Suddenly everyone wants to go to charters. That increased demand will likely be followed by a supply response. New charters for everyone! But wait, haven’t we effectively turned charter and private schools into de-facto public schools at this point? Kids have just been funneled out of existing school buildings into other charter and private schools. From a public funding standpoint, where is the money to build new charter schools? We already had all of these existing schools that are now half-full. We don’t have extra money to build new charters. Furthermore, even as these existing public schools sit half empty, the district still has to pay for the maintenance and overhead on the building itself. They have to keep the lights on, the water, keep it clean, and make sure it doesn’t decay to the point of being a safety hazard to the students left behind. That’s not even getting into the money still owed in servicing the interest on the bonds taken out to build the facilities in the first place. Now you have school districts having to operate buildings and educated students on less money. They’ve already had to lay off half the teachers, who ended up at the charters and private schools where they’re paid less. In the end, you end up seeing some great teachers leave the field because they can’t live on what they’re paid. At this point, wouldn’t it have been easier and more prudent to invest money in better practices that ensure quality of education in our existing school? But now you have this funding and operating dilemma.

Oh my gosh! [places hand on cheek with a distressed expression] How do you fix a thing like this? State and local governments are going bankrupt over this. Something has to be done fast. In an emergency effort to keep the ship from sinking, states do what governments always turn to when they can’t fund the services and institutions they are supposed to be providing. They do it with roads. They do it with prisons. Now we will privatize education at the tax payer’s expense. Corporate education will become a reality. Companies will swoop in and buy facilities, as well as build those new charters everyone wanted. Or even more, all schools may essentially become charter schools, and they’re all for profit. That means these companies will be glad to take your tax dollars and provide an education in return. But just as health insurance companies raise your rates and cut back on claims they’ll cover, these education companies will cut corners on your kids’ education. They can’t turn a profit if they don’t do this. Right now, schools find efficient ways to use taxpayer dollars to run the school. There is little waste because the funding is limited, and we have a job to do—teach your kid. But with for-profit schools, They’ll find ways to save on school nutrition, technology, facilities, textbooks, class size, and how much they pay their staff. Even more teachers will leave the field. Education will be a joke, and your billionaire Secretary of Education and her billionaire friends will be the ones laughing…all the way to the bank.

If all this sounds like something you’d want, then by all means, continue to push for those vouchers. But if this sounds as nightmarish to you as it does to me, then I suggest you make TWO calls. The first one is to your Congressperson. Tell them no. Hell no. The second should be to your state or local governments demanding that they fix your school systems before the private sector does it for them.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Islam is Not Responsible for Terrorism

I watch Bill Maher every weekend. I enjoy the commentary from various people. I like it when multiple brains are involved and therefore multiple perspectives. But a common position that Maher takes is that Islam is an evil. He believes that the religion of Islam is the root cause of terrorism perpetrated by Muslim extremists, and he is certainly not alone in this belief. But one has to remember that Bill Maher believes all religion is dangerous, and to his credit any religion can become so. Any religion can be used to justify abuse, declare war, or justify human rights violations. But to say that Islamic terrorism is an “Islam problem” is a falsehood, and here’s why.

Let’s start with holy books, and not just the Qu’ran. Islam is one of the youngest world religions and is still well over a thousand years old. Have you ever noticed that the Torah depicts slavery under the Egyptians and war with the Hittites, while Christian gospels frequently reference the Romans? We have to remember that a lot of what goes into the recording of these holy books is cultural and influenced by historical events of that time. Why does the Qu’ran even mention war and fighting? Because war occurred between the cities of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca during Mohammad’s time, just as the Hebrews had to fight for Israel after the Exodus. One would be surprised how much of what is to be taken as religious law was simply influence from the environment at the time of the compilation of these books. My point is this:  if you were to take all holy books literally, the Bible would have you enslaving pagans, beating your wives, stoning sinners, and screwing your brother’s widow when you die. You’d go to hell for getting a new TV just because your neighbor got one or because you ate too much at Golden Corral.

But people do often take their holy books literally. Sometimes it’s harmless, and sometimes it leads to hurting others. It’s one thing to not get a tattoo because you believe it to be a sin. It’s another thing to disown your son for being gay, or worse, subject him to harm because you view him as an abomination. One thing that we should consider is where we might find the vast majority of people who take the Bible literally. In the US, that would be rural areas somewhat isolated from places that gather more diversity thus experience a higher degree of social dynamics. I’m not saying that rural living is bad. I quite enjoyed my rural upbringing. But I can tell you from experience that there is a lot more taking the Bible literally in the country than there is in the cities and suburbs. There, people generally approach their religion thematically. Rather than getting hung up on commandments, deadly sins, and details about who you can love, there is more of an emphasis on general, positive themes like looking out for your neighbor, helping the helpless, loving your family, faith, salvation, and being moral. Never mind the details and scripture quoting. And with most of the people in the US living in those areas, I’d venture to assume that most Americans approach religion this way. I think this keeps Americans somewhat civil about religion. We typically don’t impugn one another over faith.

Now, look at Islam. The Qu’ran actually says that a Muslim is to adopt the laws and customs of the place in which they live. Every Muslim I’ve ever known in the US has done this. Some of the women choose to wear a hijab, which is not required by the Qu’ran, though it is encouraged as a degree of decency. All of them follow the law as closely as any non-Muslim. They seem to approach Islam as thematically and generally as most Christians do with their religion. So why is it that we find Muslims in other parts of the world killing liquor store owners and subjugating women? Why to so many openly advocate for killing someone who strays from the religion? I bring you back to the issue of taking one’s religion literally. The Middle East as a whole has been highly isolated for most of human history, mainly because of the barren, desertous geography. It has not experienced the social changes in real time with the rest of the world. Basically, much of the Middle East still exists in the middle ages, in a time when women were second to men and stoning a person to death was common. Much of their religious book took on the culture of seventh century Arabia, and even now in the twenty-first century, much of these areas still bear those cultural standards. Men still hold control over the status quo, and so do Muslims. Outside influences are shunned. When terrible things happen in the name of Islam, it isn’t because the religion is evil. The religion contains broad themes of helping the impoverished and even the exaltation of women as largely equal to men. But the places where Islam is dominant often bear an ethnic (not religious) culture where women are mistreated, non-Muslims are hated, and extremist groups come to be. This is a result of isolation and literal interpretation of the religion. It stands in resistance of changes in human rights and progressive thinking.

Islam is not more the perpetrator behind atrocities and terrorism than Christianity is the culprit behind hate crimes against gays. Either the religion is misunderstood, perverted, altered by cultural standards, or people are outright using the religion to justify their hateful intentions and actions. It isn't fair to demonize an entire religion, especially when all other religions have had hateful fundamentalists, themselves. And it isn't fair to single out Muslims for their faith and force them to take responsibility for the wrongs of others. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Make America Great Again

Usually, a slogan is just a slogan. Perhaps it’s a catchy rhyme or humorous phrase. Really, they’re just mnemonics; memory aids. I’ve been known to walk around all day singing “Chicken parm, you taste so good”. It’s ridiculous, and taken out of context, people should be giving me strange looks for singing about my food. But everyone knows that I’m referencing Nationwide Insurance. Imagine that:  a jingle about chicken parmesan sandwiches that make me think about car insurance.

Some slogans simply stand as a sort of mission statement; something that is intended in the message. That brings me to campaign slogans. President Obama used the “Change We Can Believe In” slogan, and presented to voters, stood as a powerful message of intent. But I can’t remember people walking around saying that, or using that phrase in conversation. What I find interesting about Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is that his supporters actually say those words in conversation with others. It has happened to me many times. It happened just the other day, actually. I was having a conversation with a Trump supporter who told me that he believed Trump was going to “bring back jobs and make America great again.” It didn’t even sound like he used it as some kind of rallying cry; like it was rehearsed. It may as well have been an original line in his dialogue based in his true beliefs about what comes next.

I’m passing no judgement for this at all. The purpose of this article isn’t debate the qualities of President Trump or to try to predict what kind of policies are to come. I won’t begrudge the person who cast their vote, confident that Trump will do well as president. Rather, what set me to thinking was the slogan itself. Make America Great Again. Again is the word that strikes me first. It implies that greatness had been achieved, but it was lost somewhere along the way. When did we lose it? Would Trump or his supporters mark that time with the previous eight years under Obama? Did his presidency evaporate American greatness that had been established in the aftermath of World War II? Or had our greatness been declining for some time? No one has quite pointed that out. I’m not sure that Donald Trump has even fully outlined that fall from grace and the timeline by which it coursed. Perhaps the idea is that, from a conservative’s perspective, America can’t possibly be great under the leadership of the left. “Make America Great Again”, therefore, begins to sound strangely akin to a previous slogan used by others—“Take Our Country Back”. That one always had me questioning what non-American outsiders had taken hold of our country and government. I guess if you’re different, you’re dangerous.

What really evokes deeper thought is the concept of greatness. I’d be willing to bet that the majority of Americans feel that America is or was great. I guess it depends on who you ask, though. Is it possible that someone whose family and ancestors have always been marginalized, enslaved, discriminated against, or even slaughtered might differ? Perhaps a Native American might not agree with the idea that America has ever been great. Perspective is a funny thing. I always grew up believing in America’s exceptional status in the world. Maybe that’s what I was taught, and I never experienced anything to personally challenge that idea. But the older I have gotten, I can see that not everyone has had that experience.

Doesn’t that mean greatness is kind of a subjective thing? Can it be great for some people and terrible for others? How do we even define such greatness? What are the parameters? I’ve decided that most people might point to wealth and military dominance. The biggest, baddest, richest kid on the block. We established a post-depression economy that was the strongest in the world, mainly because there was no competition. Europe, Russia, Japan, and China had been ravaged by war. They spent the following twenty years rebuilding, and not one shot was fired in America. On top of that, we had increased the size of our military during the war, and with the Truman Doctrine, escalated it from there. It was in those following decades after WWII that we built a strong sense of capitalistic nationalism that could see you locked up as a communist for questioning or defying. A rich country and huge military was the end result of the fighting our grandfathers had endured on the beaches of France and the jungles of the Philippines.

But are wealth and brute strength truly the measure of greatness. Let us personify those qualities. What about a person who is very wealthy? Does that immediately make that person great? They might be, but is it wealth that makes them great? That person might be a real shit stain. Thus, wealth doesn’t make you great. Neither does a person’s ability to kick another’s ass. It might make him a bully. In fact, it might very well land that person in jail for assault.

Some people point to our founding fathers and the constitution. There, I might say you’re on to something. From my perspective, I’ve never had to deal with racism or any other consequence of the darker aspects of our history. The Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement didn’t do much to affect my life today. I’ve never had to fight for the right to marry who I choose. I’ve never had someone discriminate against me for my religious beliefs. Slavery, Native American removal, Jim Crow—all of these things point to a society that has been far from perfect as our founding fathers attempted. But the spirit of what they did in the latter half of the 18th century is the very thing that makes America great. It’s the spirit of progress. It’s the spirit of innovation. We take risks and try new things. We try to correct our misgivings and move forward.

Progress, until recently, was not a politicized word. It wasn’t merely a left wing ideal bemoaned by the right. People on both ends of the political spectrum embraced innovation. Eisenhower was a Republican, and under his administration, we got interstate highways. The revolution, the 13th amendment, the extension of marriage rights to same sex couples. The invention of flight. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine and gave it away for free. If you look throughout American history, the bright points—the moments that define our country and make it great—are always moments of progress and innovation. We decided to do it better. We decided to make our society better. We pioneered modern democracy for many other countries to use as a model. We invented things that would change human life the world over. We revolutionized art and literature. That is what makes America great. So if you want to make America great again, go out and do something new. You make it great again. Not Donald Trump.