Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Putting squeeze on nation's I.Q.

Football being the fixation of the nation right now, let's employ a
gridiron analogy to understand what's become of society's most
important pursuit.
 The issue: helmets and brain injury. Ostensibly built to protect the
brain, impervious to destruction, helmets allow players to use their
heads as weapons.
  Elsewhere, what are we doing with our heads? Political forces don
ideological helmets, collide at ramming speed, and cause national
brain damage.
  This is true in just about every endeavor that involves the mind. It
is true in elementary schools, in high schools, in colleges, in
laboratories, in libraries, in textbooks.
   What do I mean?
   Consider:
   — The recent budget agreement in Congress will kill scores of
proposed research projects under the National Institute of Health. The
principal culprit: last year's sequestration, which cut NIH by 5
percent, cuts which the budget deal will not restore.
   — In state after state, college costs are soaring because, in state
after state, even before the economy took a swan dive, states figured
out that they could start sticking collegians with more of the costs
of what they had subsidized generously for generations.
    The place where I got my diploma, Colorado State University, saw
undergraduate resident tuition increase by 55 percent from 2008 to
2013.
    It's true that colleges' own unconscionable bracket creep shares
the blame for this. But the way state policymakers have hung college
students out to dry is shameful.
    It is sickening to hear the exceedingly well-fed complain about
tax burdens (state and federal tax rates that have barely been nudged
for decades), when college students buckle under jaw-dropping debt --
this as they enter anemic job markets.
   — Meanwhile, in the public schools where supposedly we are doing
everything we can to get children ready for college (wink, wink),
state budget writers have stuck it to them to pay for blue-sky fiscal
policies and tax cuts that benefited, naturally, those who least need
help.
   In states like Texas, Arizona and Florida, it was as if lawmakers,
instead of hoping for rain, were counting on drought – drought like
the economic free fall of 2009-2012 – to really stick it to public
schools and, of course, those dastardly teachers unions.
   — At the same time, while conspiring at every turn to divert tax
dollars to for-profit charter schools or church schools through
vouchers, people who don't really buy into the function of public
schools have ceremonially dropped educators into the scalding crucible
of school "accountability."
    A short history reveals that these spurious initiatives sprang
from the minds of fiscal conservatives who recoiled at increased
school funding and federal programs like Title 1. They decided that if
schools were going to get more dollars, educators were going to take
new policy instructions from above and afar. Hence, corporate-style
reforms that equated standardization with education and competence
with excellence.
    — How else are helmeted ideological warriors waging war on the
nation's mind? Look at textbooks, where for a generation the religious
right in Texas has treated the State Board of Education as its most
strategic beachhead. That's smart. Texas is the nation's second
largest purchaser of textbooks behind California. What Texas says,
most book publishers adopt.
  Brain damage. In 2012 the Texas Republican Party approved a platform
plank opposing the teaching of "critical thinking skills," which
platform writers equated with "behavior modification" and interfering
with "parental authority."
   Not widely known was that this was in the same platform: "Since
data is clear that additional money does not translate into increased
achievement and higher education costs are out of control, we support
reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education institutions."
  Never mind that "data" is plural. Never mind data, period. Never
mind the damage. What matters is ideology, that helmet.
    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:
jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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