Thursday, February 26, 2009

'Conspiracy of silence' on sex ed

Imagine if a study found that jaw-dropping numbers of Texas math students had no clue about multiplication.

SWAT teams of experts would be dispatched. Heads would roll. State-assigned campus masters would arrive by air, by sea, by pack mule.

We can't have our children ignorant of multiplication.

That is, unless it's human multiplication: ovum, sperm, menstruation, conception, contraception. Then . . .

We can afford to have children fully ignorant, except to be preached at about the evils of following the urges associated therewith.

Basically, that's the state of sex education in Texas, according to a new study that painstakingly has gone through what schools are teaching children, and what they are not.

Texas State University health education professor David Wiley and assistant professor Kelly Wilson have prepared a "state of sex education" report for the Texas Freedom Network. Per its title, Just Say Don't Know, it is scandalous. It also is no surprise.

More than nine of 10 Texas schools basically punt away sex education in favor of federally funded abstinence-only approaches. Said the researchers, too often abstinence-only is more of a dodge than a means of educating young people about basic biology.

"The most troubling thing is how adults have failed kids," Wiley said in a phone interview. "This is an adult problem. We have refused to address this as a public health matter. Instead, we've addressed it as a morality issue."

While personal discretion — abstinence outside of marriage — should override all other issues, leaving things at that is a disservice to those we hope to educate.

Wiley has this challenge to abstinence-only disciples: "If you think what we're doing is working really well, I'd like you to show us the data."

The data: Texas has a teen pregnancy rate of 63 per thousand. The national average is 42 (2006 figures). Heckuva job.

This problem has two dimensions: (1) what Texas isn't telling its children; (2) what it is. The problem with (2) is that a lot of it isn't backed by facts. It simply fits the template of abstinence-only.

For instance, Wiley found many abstinence programs telling students that condoms fail 20 percent of the time. That's false, if you're talking about the actual failure rate of condoms. The real issue related to condom efficacy is user error, he said. That's a big difference.

Regarding effective means of birth control and guarding against sexually transmitted disease, Wiley assailed a "conspiracy of silence."

Yes, abstinence is the only safe sex. But what about those who aren't going to abide by the abstinence pledge?

Lost in this whole debate, emotionally charged because of the issue of teen promiscuity, is the fact that sex education is about life skills and matters that come into play throughout one's adulthood.

"I thought I was no longer capable of being surprised by the ignorance among our students," Wiley wrote in the report. "Then last year a sincere male student asked aloud, 'What is my risk for cervical cancer?'" Um, and when might this young man have learned the difference?

The Texas State researchers don't just express condemnation about the bereft state of sex education. They have reasonable suggestions, too.

Topping the proposals is this: to have one certified health professional or educator on the health education councils that the state mandates for each district.

How any "health" council could whistle past issues of AIDS, STDs, contraception and the whole of holistic sex education is beyond me. But as Wiley points out, often people are dissuaded by administrators who don't want controversy.

Texans should demand real biology education, meaning real sex education. Do the math and see that our kids have shown they can multiply — all too well.

John Young writes for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why wobbly at thought of federal help?

In golf, it's a gimme. In hoops, it's a slam dunk. In baseball, it's a gopher pitch.

Each is a can't-miss opportunity.

Don't look now, but Texas has a $550 million gimme putt set up near the cup. And — is that a fairway wood Rick Perry has pulled out, with Republican cohorts saying, "Knock that sucker into the swamp"?

At issue is money in the economic stimulus package Texas will lose if it won't give an inch on miserly policies on unemployment compensation.

Yes, half a billion dollars to help Texans and to shore up the state's unemployment trust fund. We can't have that.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal says the same. So does Mississippi's Haley Barbour. What they mean is — hey, we have our jobs. What use is this to us?

Ah, but Governor, even you could find yourself unemployed.

Honestly, this dispute is over something so minor, relative to benefits to the states, that heads should be examined.

The biggest sticking point, apparently, is granting pro-rated unemployment payments to people who must fall back on part-time jobs when their full-time jobs evaporate. Texas doesn't do that now.

A few other changes would be required, but they aren't oppressive. Opponents of accepting the money say that once the money goes away the state will have to raise taxes on employers to make up the difference. Not so. If the state wants to return to its hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge ways once the stimulus money dries up, no one can stop it.

The fact is that because Texas has done so little to keep pace with its needs, its unemployment kitty is in dire straits. In other words, the stimulus money is manna from heaven, and not a moment too soon.

All things considered, this is a slam dunk — one for which the federal government has supplied a mini-trampoline.

But it's quite a leap on elephant feet.

We've seen this behavior before, sadly.

In 2003 the newly GOP-controlled Texas Legislature painted a masterpiece in false economy when it threw up roadblocks to enrolling in or keeping eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program.

This is a program for which the federal government kicks in $2.52 for every dollar a state spends.

Under that formula, in 2003 Texas forfeited $958 million, which other states gladly raked in. So doing, those states spared themselves unnecessary costs when the preventive care embodied by CHIP kept children out of emergency rooms and in school.

Don't look now, but the federal government has set up another gimme putt mere centimeters from Texas' cup — a dramatic expansion of CHIP.

Will Texas take full advantage of it? Or will it find some reason to rationalize more obstinacy — maybe so as not to spoil its No. 1 ranking for highest percentage of uninsured citizens. Point of pride, you know.

It's fascinating to see the split among Republican governors about federal assistance in hard times. Republicans like California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist are looking at their states' needs and saying, "People are hurting. This will help. We'll take it."

Meanwhile, figures like Perry, Jindal and Barbour (oh, and don't forget Alaska's chief moose hunter) are auditioning for the next call for "Dancing With the Anti-Government Stars."

They might impress the judges. You bet. Everyone looks good in sequins.

Yeah, well, if a comptroller's forecast holds, 111,000 Texans will lose their jobs in the next calendar sweep.

Et tu, Governor?

John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Back to bake sales for abstinence-only

It almost makes me want to buy a cupcake for the cause.

Pursuant to the Democrats' sweep of Congress and now the new face in the White House, the "abstinence-only" movement is on its own.

When dominant in Washington, Republicans couldn't find extra money to devote to cleaner water, security-exposed ports or levees that worked. They could, however, find ever-mounting millions for sexual abstinence programs. This funding continued though study after study found abstinence-only approaches of dubious value, particularly when serving as alternatives to comprehensive sex education, which is another word for basic biology.

Comprehensive sex education would, at age-appropriate levels, inform youngsters about contraception — how the birth-control pill works, or the IUD, or injections of Depo Provera.

Abstinence-only programs don't address such things, except to advise students on the general fallibility of birth control. Condoms are treated as a public enemy on a par with AIDS.

The McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project — MCCAP — at one time was rolling in dough, roughly $1 million a year, to foster abstinence programs in schools and otherwise to spread the message.

Now it's on the ropes because grants have run out. Fundraisers are planned.

I'll admit to being of two minds about MCCAP's efforts. On one hand, its well-produced TV commercials and eye-catching billboards have conveyed important messages about sexuality, peer pressure and making good decisions.

On the other hand, presenting abstinence training as an alternative to reproductive biology was and is a bad idea.

Now the high tide for abstinence education has ebbed. With it — the return of real sex education? We can only hope.

This is not the only front where the absolutism of abstinence has lost precedence. And good for us all.

President Obama has reversed policies that undermined international family planning efforts that the United States used to lead.

Now, instead of "just say no," the message our leadership will facilitate will be, "Let's be real — and smart." It will mean empowering family planning organizations to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Obama has reversed the rule against funding international organizations that so much as advocate abortion rights.

Of course, these were the organizations, like the International Planned Parenthood Federation, that do the most to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies, thereby entirely obviating the abortion dilemma.

That self-defeating contradiction never bothered proponents of the Reagan-era gag rule in the slightest.

Someone will say that Obama's directive now means taxpayer dollars will fund abortion. Nope. That's against the law.

We can trust that in addition to promoting contraception, family planning associations will hammer home the dangers of unchecked promiscuity in the age of AIDS.

The health benefits of abstinence before marriage cannot be denied. But abstinence only? That is called living in denial.

Locally, I would support the efforts of abstinence-information crusaders as long as their efforts weren't used to supplant real sex education.

By golly, I'd buy a blintz for the cause.

But when it comes to helping young people understand their bodies and regulate their urges, my tax dollar is better invested in programs that answer all the questions they have, not programs that make some of the answers off-limits.

John Young is opinion page editor for the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

School prayer mime games

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's rhetorical styling is as silly and annoying as that guy in the park wearing whiteface, a turtleneck, and rappelling on an invisible rope. Abbott is miming for an audience, in this case for the court.

Abbott can't admit what lawmakers clearly wanted when they imposed a "moment of silence" on public schools. They wanted prayer.

To say so — to tell the truth — would be to get the requirement tossed out by the courts. So we get this from him:

"The United States Constitution plainly protects young Texans' right to observe a moment of silence before school each morning."

Excuse me? When was that ever an issue?

Of course, that's not the issue in the case of Croft v. Perry. The issue is the state nodding, winking and nudging public employees and captive student audiences into prayer.

Pro-silence? To the contrary. To suit the ends of noisy politicians, silence has been hijacked by a mischievous state.

A Carrollton couple, David and Shannon Croft, sued Texas over its 2003 law. An appeal of a lower court ruling in Texas' favor was heard this week in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court.

Before addressing the illegality of what Texas did, let's address the absurdity of what our attorney general just said, "young Texans' right . . ."

It's a construct — rights assigned to masses — we hear all the time when the issue really is state-imposed religion, or majority-imposed religiosity. Proponents say it's a student's right to pray in class or before kickoff.

No one has ever argued to the contrary. It's the organized, state-sponsored act that has been challenged.

This isn't about rights, Mr. A.G. This is about power — the state saying, "By decree, we will now have a moment of silence — which, mind you, isn't about religion at all." Wink. Wink.

It doesn't matter how many people support state- or majority-imposed religion. The majority has no right. The state has no right. Rights belong to the individual.

On certain key principles, including freedom not to bow one's head to the entreaties of the pious, the Bill of Rights protects the individual from majority impulses.

Some people insist that religion can and must be administered in sugar-cube form to make the world a godlier place. Since the Supreme Court in 1962 prohibited organized school prayer, we've heard appeals to "put God back in school." Advocates of state-imposed religiosity seem to assert that God can't exist unless government says it's so.

Hence, the silent moment movement. Six years ago Texas joined several states with such laws.

Recently a federal court overturned Illinois' law, ruling that its clear intent was to facilitate prayer. That was as self-evident as the law's name: Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.

That "silent reflection" is an option didn't relieve Illinois of the fact that the law's intent is to inject prayer into the classroom.

Intent matters. That was the essence of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Alabama's silent moment law in 1985.

That's why Texas is miming for the court, winking all the while, that this law is to protect students' "right to silence."

Right. And the objective of traffic lights is the "right of motorists to see red, green and yellow."

The amazing and telling thing during the statehouse discussion of Texas' silent-moment law in 2003 was that not once did we hear any of the Republicans in charge — they who often rail against encroaching, busy-body government, take to the microphone and say:

"What? Do we really need the state to play contemplation traffic cop? If we can think of no weightier matters, let us adjourn. I have fields to plow."

John Young is opinion editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

That grand old umbrage

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Two stories from the This Changes Everything Department:

* Blackwater Security Worldwide Inc., which has run up a portfolio of atrocities under contract in Iraq, has changed its name to Xe. (Pronounced "Z.")

* Meanwhile the Republican Party, having unashamedly run up debt for eight years, has renamed itself the Prudence Party.

Members of the PP, Prudes for short, can say they opposed deficit spending from the start, since the party's new brand wasn't around for the Reagan administration or either of the Bush administrations.

Hence, duly rebranded, the party can assail Barack Obama's stimulus bill with near religiosity. For debt runs against the very core of the party's newly minted principles.

When the then Republican Party was running up debt, putting two wars off-budget, awarding "cost-plus" contracts to the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater (Xe), we weren't supposed to worry our handsome little heads over the matter.

Recent reports about corruption in Iraq reconstruction (a term now certifiably oxymoronic) should make every American shudder. It ranges from shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills that spread with the desert winds to bid-rigging and bribes that may have enriched U.S. military honchos, according to The New York Times.

Reports the Times, the $125 billion spent "to improve services and convince Iraqis of American good will, largely managed to do neither." Oh, well. It's only money.

So, now we have a major spending bill directed at — of all things — tending to matters on these shores. And we have the born-again Prudence Party in full flower.

No one can look at the stimulus measure and not worry about the size and added debt incurred. We can all debate whether some of the measures are true stimulus components or simply things an activist White House wants addressed.

One thing about this package, though: It's all there for you to examine, along with built-in apparatuses to monitor how the money is spent.

Will it stimulate? Of course, it will. The combination of tax cuts and spending will get things moving.

Will we recoup the cost? Probably not. At some point when the economy is righted we need to dispense with the notion that we can have this government (including a military that spans the globe) without paying what it costs. Yes, raise taxes. Yes, on all of us.

Back when Bill Clinton signed a bill raising taxes on upper incomes, the opposition predicted economic catastrophe. Some catastrophe. Before the end of his administration, for the first time in a generation, our government actually was buying back its bonds, paying down debt.

If you are really serious about debt, you see, you acknowledge that we've bought more government than we are willing to pay for. You say it's time to pay for it.

Who was going to pay for our armed venture in Iraq? No one prosecuting the notion gave it a thought.

Yes, Prudence, it's time to give thought to the debts we are accumulating.

Rest assured, however, were the Republicans still the party in power, the current economic crisis would have caused them to raise the national debt further as they leaned on the one-trick pony of tax cuts.

Voters chose another pony.

John Young is opinion editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Testing's collateral damage

It shouldn't take a Ph.D like David Berliner to tell us what's wrong with the way we do accountability in schools. He sees parallels in baseball, too, and he's no Joe Dimaggio.

Sporting analogy: When you put too much emphasis on home runs, he points out, people strike out more.

When you put too much emphasis on anything at the exclusion of other things, players adjust in ways that make them one- dimensional.

Berliner isn't an expert on baseball. A regents' professor at Arizona State University, he is an expert on education. With University of Texas-San Antonio professor Sharon Nichols he's authored Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts American Education.

Berliner spoke at Baylor University last week, his theme being how high-stakes testing makes America less competitive.

"Any time you invest a lot of value in an outcome measure you get a corruption of the measure," said Berliner, in a true academician's phrasing.

Texas being a proving ground for high-stakes testing and the federal No Child Left Behind law, it's notable that its schools have become poster children for "gaming the system to lie," said Berliner.

This includes not just outright cheating, but any number of maneuvers to make sure low-achievers aren't tested.

Beyond that is the problem of "narrowing the curriculum" to meet the task of passing a test on core subjects.

In Texas and across the country we've seen schools with low math scores become slaves to computation at the exclusion of everything else.

"If you are going to gauge a school based on a test, then you're going to prepare kids for the test," he said. Yeah, we need a Ph.D. to tell us this. Even Berliner sees the absurdity therein.

"What you get is really boring curriculum heavily favoring reading and math, and a drop in [emphasis of] almost everything else" — recess, math, music, arts, social studies, science.

Berliner said this problem is most pronounced in inner-city schools with more than their share of poverty cases, and with low-low test scores. For many students in those situations, education is drained of its Technicolor in favor of dry work sheets and test-based drills.

Once again, it shouldn't take a Ph.D. to tell us this, but:

"Anyone who looks at the future of the American workforce knows it needs to be more adaptable than it is today. We're developing a curriculum that's very narrow, a one-size-fits all approach.

"Instead, we need a broad approach, one that's wide so we have lots people who can adjust quickly when [economic] shifts happen."

Success demands that schools emphasize such traits as creativity, collaboration and problem-solving, he said.

Cancer of boredom

Back to Berliner's warning about a too-boring curriculum. Some traditionalists would consider that a weak complaint of the "touchy-feely" crowd that doesn't want to crack the whip.

Well, Berliner cites a study in which 47 percent of those who dropped out cited boredom as the reason. It wasn't that they couldn't do the work. It was that they didn't see any reason.

I know that the martial-law crowd can't understand this, but: You know, schools ought to give children a reason to want to learn — other than passing a test.

It doesn't take a graduate degree to see that we need to stop examining our measuring cups and examine what we're putting in them. One idea would be to treat teachers as educators and not as vessels.

What you emphasize you'll get, or at least lunging efforts at it. In the age of test-driven "accountability," we are getting training and conditioning, but not education.

John Young is opinion editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mr. Big and the Bag Man

It has the look of a full-length action thriller, and in this case, “full-length” understates it by a bunch.

The sweaty man, two arms around the bulging briefcase, steals away in the dark of night, his necktie swinging. Having evaded security, he hustles off, panting. Home free.

But wait. The camera zooms in on a thread from his pant leg, dangling from the barbed wire he thought he successfully scaled.

That thread means he’s about to be found out. But what about Mr. Big, who ultimately gets what’s in the bag?

First, the bag man and the plot. In the heist of six new congressional seats, Tom DeLay thinks he’s home free. But after a tale with more turns than a Quentin Tarantino flick, he gets taken down.

The incriminating thread is DeLay’s hook-or-crook efforts to elect Republicans to the Texas statehouse and the role of prohibited corporate money. The bag man’s goal: To redraw Texas congressional districts for a second time in a decade based on added GOP strength in the statehouse.

And Mr. Big? Throughout the Texas redistricting saga, which saw three special sessions and quorum-blocking exoduses by House Democrats and then Senate Democrats, George W. Bush appeared above the fray.

The White House said this was a state matter. It was staying out of it. However, when things got particularly dicey, Karl Rove reportedly started making calls to Republicans who thought governing Texas was more important than abetting a party power play.

Don’t believe the denials. The White House was in on the job from the start.

Unless otherwise demonstrated, one might make the same assumption about Republican efforts to torpedo the Voting Rights Act, parts of which expire next year. Appearing to be sympathetic to the concerns of black and Hispanic voters, Bush has said he’d sign a reauthorization.

This week the nine-member Texas Legislative Black Caucus called on Bush to put his weight behind the Voting Rights Act and to call on seven Texas Republicans blocking its reauthorization to back down.

This, one imagines, he could accomplish with the snap of his finger if in fact he truly wanted the Voting Rights Act to continue, with its protections of minority voting strength.

It’s not that one would be surprised if Bush looked the other way or Rove were actively pushing for the act to die. Its death certainly would make things easier for partisan schemers.

Were we speaking of threads? When the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Texas redistricting plan in principle, it did find one problem that could cause at least one of DeLay’s finely knitted pant legs to unravel. The court found that one new district, the 23rd, violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting Hispanic voting clout through, among things, splitting up Laredo.

It’s unclear how this problem can be resolved without forfeiting one or more districts that were finely sculpted to guarantee a GOP seat. It could affect many.

So, like the full-length film this befits, the intrigue is not near the rolling of credits. The Texas Legislature will have to approve a new redistricting plan that suits the court.

Meanwhile, as that subplot continues to unfold (into the next decade?) we’ll be cutting to scenes from Tom DeLay’s criminal trial. We assume he will be wearing different pants.