Tuesday, February 25, 2014

School reformers tied in knots

  I never thought I’d welcome black helicopters on the horizon. Black helicopters with jackbooted storm troopers in blue helmets, empowered to scan children’s tender corneas and report to the United Nations.

  Bring that on.

  That’s generally how discourse has devolved regarding the Common Core movement embraced by a host of states.

   Beating back the Common Core is the newest cause celebre of the tea party wing of the Republican Party, with quite a few GOP leaders suddenly agreeing that — yes, ahem, come to think of it — this is a threat to all that is good and decent.

   Any number of legislatures and state school boards are having to justify what they thought was a slam dunk, a so-called higher order of standards in English and math that could apply coast to coast without being federally mandated (coming not from Washington but from the good guys, the National Association of Governors).

   Here’s what policy-makers are getting in the way of blowback: The Common Core is top-down homogenization of what’s taught in our schools. Worse, it’s federal intrusion most foul.

  Federal? Yes and no. The federal Race to the Top initiative availed billions of dollars to states that adopted the Common Core among other things. Not surprisingly, many states then made like ants to a sucrose eruption.

   That federal angle allows the rabid right to make many baseless claims. You’d think the U.S. Department of Education had set up death panels for kindergartners.

   The silliest assertion is that the Common Core has designs to collect data about the little ones to — um, well, do something with it.

    These things noted, you do notice I said that I welcome the cranky right to this debate. Indeed, quote me as saying, “It’s about time.”

   Many claims about this new flavor-of-the-month initiative are valid. They are just a decade late. It’s as if the critics of school reform just discovered the Panama Canal is Panama’s or that they are being forced against their will to finance an interstate highway system.

   Legitimate claim: The Common Core will result in top-down orders to local school boards. Yes, and where were these critics when the Bush brainchild, No Child Left Behind, became everyone’s progeny? Common Core can never compete with NCLB for the most intrusive federal education initiative ever.

    Legitimate claim: It will skew how educators do their jobs. Of course it will, and where were you when NCLB and oppressive state standards were doing the same?

   Dumbing down? Nothing has ever dumbed down curricula like NCLB and all the frothy efforts by states to standardize competence. Whatever that standard was or is, it always strands children on an island of mediocrity. You cannot “raise the bar” out of this condition if the objective is a set of standards all students must meet.

  Texas is one state that spurned Race to the Top and Common Core. Good for Texas? Well, the fact is that Texas has always had hyperactive glands on “accountability.” And so, while others were starting to complain about the Common Core, Texas launched a mouthful called CSCOPE.

   Not a new-generation mouthwash, CSCOPE is a “curriculum management system” to provide school districts with lesson plans to execute state standards.

   The robust right of Texas politics raised a royal stink about some of the lessons and forced the state to back off, though some school districts continue to use them.

   In Colorado, the advent of the Common Core and a new computerized system of testing has caused the political right to scream about testing overkill and lack of local control.

   I keep asking, where were these frantic people in the Bush years when No Child Left Behind and onerous state mandates righteously bulldozed local control?

   Whatever the case: Welcome, my new friends, to resisting top-down, overarching, overpriced, oversold school reforms. Resist them all.

    Now that we share the same cause, my brethren, let me admit that you were right: The fluoride in the water is there to turn the fillings in your teeth into sensors for the CIA.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Politics vs. human rights

   I’ve never been one to dwell on anniversaries. But what the heck.

   Last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act came in the sesquicentennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Lincoln wanted the latter a year earlier. He made a preliminary declaration in 1862. He said it would take effect officially in 1863 if the Confederate army kept fighting. It kept fighting.

    This is the case today in another protracted battle.

    The opposition that wants to oppress gays and lesbians will go down fighting. But it is going down.

     This time no army will be needed. the U.S. Constitution will see to it. 

     A pivotal point in the Civil War came in Virginia when Richmond, the Confederate capitol, fell to Union forces.

    Today? A turning point in Virginia: A federal judge has blocked that state’s ban on gay and lesbian unions. Judge Arenda Wright Allen cited the Supreme Court's ruling in United States vs. Weldon in pronouncing marriage a fundamental right.

    Speaking of the one-time Confederacy: Though the ruling could be overturned in appeal, Allen’s decision applies to gay marriage bans in other states in her district: North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. Glory be.

    Once the tide turned 150 years ago, the end was a formality, with Union victory after victory. Today? Virginia is only the latest to fall. Before that, court rulings struck down gay marriage bans in Oklahoma, and Utah, and in New Mexico, and in New Jersey.

    We hear the claims of righteousness behind raw and rank discrimination, the “our way of life” claim, the “stand up for traditional marriage” claim. It is politics, nothing more. Sorry to report, folks, but it’s about to be a rout, for the Constitution clearly, decisively, is in the other corner.

    The people of Virginia voted “overwhelmingly to affirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” says the president of the National Organization for Marriage. “That decision should be respected by judges.”

   But, of course, “the people” of various jurisdictions have authorized any number of disgraceful forms of oppression, from the aforementioned slavery, to school segregation, to exclusive lunch counters, to the Kansas House’s sending to the Senate the other day a bill to allow businesses to refuse to serve gays and lesbians.

   Just as was the case during Jim Crow, the politics of oppression remain strong. That’s why U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was at the microphone hawking a bill that would effectively declare states like his as Constitution-free zones on matters like this. King’s X, as it were.

   Cruz came on the national scene like Joe McCarthy. Now he is doing a very serviceable George Wallace. Speak for the people, Senator.

   It is a fascinating pairing when Cruz and his tea party kin find soul mates in Russian autocrats and Sudanese henchmen on the issue of gay rights.

   When U.S. athletes, with the blessing of the president, strode confidently in Sochi in support of human rights — gay rights, it was a proud red, white and blue day for America.

    When the students of the University of Missouri stood and roared for newly, proudly, outed defensive lineman Michael Sam, it was a proud day for the university. It also is a gesture that should shame a state — Missouri — in which discrimination against gay couples is institutionalized. Be advised, Mizzou: The ACLU is coming after you. It announced as much last week.       

      What the courts are saying: Marriage isn’t a province of the church. Marriage isn’t the province of politicians. Marriage is a basic legal relationship carrying a host of ramifications, from spousal benefits, to probate, to tax equity.

     The courts say that if, as the Declaration of Independence says, all of us are equal, then those who are gay, lesbian and transgendered are included.

     The literal definition of “us” is what Lincoln was prosecuting, too, though the opposition kept fighting.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.





Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pizza, beer and health coverage

  Wrong. Incorrect. Erroneous. Fallacious. Bogus.

  Choose your modifier for the headline-a-palooza the other day that alarmed (much of) a nation.

   Breathless were the reports: “Obamacare to cost 2.3 million jobs.” It took many variations, through the Wall Street Journal, through UPI, Politico, and of course the foamy tea partisans of Fox News.

  Wrong. Incorrect. Erroneous. Fallacious. Bogus. And in most cases, corrected.

  How this happened when the report in question was printed in plain English — a currency to which all of the above subscribe — is hard to fathom. Except that some eyes are trained to claim catastrophe at every turn with the Affordable Care Act.

   What the Congressional Budget Office report, “Slow Recovery of the Job Market,” said in a most parenthetical way is that by 2017 2.3 million may opt not to work because their health insurance needs will be met by the ACA.

  That’s about as far from “job cuts” as corn stalks are from corned beef.

   Job cuts? Just the opposite. If and when these people remove themselves from the work force, it will open positions for those who need jobs.

    Read all about it, but I’m here to say that the headline writers missed the bigger story.

    The story happened in a pizza parlor.

    At that place, between rounds of beer and a slice or three, a young lady I know purchased government-subsidized health insurance.

     She’s as hard a worker as anyone you know. She works in a flower shop, and barely makes ends meet. The first time I met this 30-something, she was doing landscaping at a friend’s house to pay for her cat’s veterinary bills.

    As for her own medical care, well, she had no coverage. She is the embodiment of the uninsured working poor that the Affordable Care Act serves.

    Well, she is uncovered no more.

    The other night, she and a couple of friends huddled over her laptop in that pizza parlor, went to the state health exchange, and signed her up. 

    What a terrible development.

    It wasn’t easy. It was frustratingly complex. But she did it with a little help from her friends. We’ll be careful not to include you among them, Sen. Ted Cruz.

   Add one more person for whom the Affordable Care Act is a godsend, and why we aren’t going back to the bad old days before someone in Washington cared about a national disgrace.

   Here’s the biggest reason: 12 million Americans.

   The administration has reported that 3 million people have signed up at the exchanges and on healthcare.gov. High? Low per projections? It’s immaterial.

  As a USA Today analysis points out, to calculate the ACA’s cumulative effect one has to add in the health coverage from Medicaid expansion and older children who remain covered under their parents’ policies are included, that’s about 9 million people in sum.

    That sum is the biggest reason why ACA can’t and won’t be repealed. But that’s not all. Another big reason is that the competition set in place by ACA has had a moderating effect on rates and costs throughout the nation’s health-care system. Abolishing it would result in a brutal premium spike.

   What about people who lost cut-rate policies? They have options through the ACA. What about job losses when employers jettison rather than cover employees?

     Here’s what: This is a transformative moment in American history, just as when Social Security and Medicare became reality, just as when the minimum wage became law. Each carried costs that some people whose needs were met wanted to avoid. Each carried benefits that provided scant relief for people on the edge of desperation.

    Yes, that’s your headline. Transformative change does not come without discomfort, disruption, and confusion, particularly for a few headline writers.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.





Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I've looked at snow from both sides now

  At one time in my life I had no use for it. Hated it.

  I hated what snow did to the morning newspaper, how it crimped my driveway basketball dominance, how it curbed mobility in all forms except on skis.

  And now?

  Love it. Can’t get enough of it. Snow, snow, snow. The last few weeks it has done just that where I live -- 8 inches of it outside my window, with more on the way.

   Snow has been a discussion piece over the last three weeks, with 2 inches of it paralyzing Atlanta, and traces of it as far as the Texas Gulf Coast.

   Having lived in Texas for many years, I understand how it could dominate discourse. In Central Texas, the sighting of a single snowflake can cause citizens to sweep every edible item off of every shelf in town, and hunker down for a week of paralysis that generally doesn’t come.

   “Saturday Night Live” spoofed Dixie’s scare affair with snow via a southern gentleman who said he panicked at the sight of white  — “Yankee sludge,” he called it — and hurried to the “safest place I could think of: the interstate.”

   Where I live now, snow has to be in feet, not inches, to have a “snow day.” Indeed, I grew up in Denver, and never had a snow day — not one. The only school day canceled all those years was because of cold — 25 below.

   So why would I have grown to hate snow? It relates to a newspaper career which began in a remote Southern Colorado town: Alamosa. Ensconced in an arid alpine valley, it is one of the coldest places in the country, often victim to vicious cold-air inversions that happen after a healthy snowfall.

   Snow didn’t just mean unpleasantry for my extremities; it meant that I was stranded in that valley, as one had to traverse a snow-packed mountain pass to get back home to Denver. A non-skier, I had no use for snow.

   But things have changed. Back then, my life was defined by highways and bylines. Now, settled and far from restless, life is more closely defined by life.

    Snow has a lot to do with that.

    Last year, the Rockies were in the grip of a drought that had seen forest fires from Idaho to New Mexico. Throughout the winter, the foothills were brown, not white. Fire season stretched into November.

     This year the white has returned, meaning sustenance for watersheds and aquifers throughout the West and Southwest.

     Have no doubt from where most of the Southwest’s water comes: Not from too-rare rain storms. Not from plastic bottles. It comes from the Rockies, ultimately to refresh farm fields and stock tanks.

    The reasons that made me hate snow apply today. Snow is work — scraping, shoveling, shivering. But now I shovel with relish. I fully appreciate how snow fits into life’s cycle.

    For those downstream of all this labor: We do it for you.

    All joking aside: Climate change has altered nature’s balance. Thirty years ago in Central Texas one could expect two months of real winter — January and February. Then,  about 15 years ago, it was as if winter stopped coming. We started to see buds on trees in January.

     A case of the “milds” has beset other former haunts. I would not feel so isolated these days in the remote mountain town of my post-college days, because at times over the last 20 years the mountain passes haven’t been so routinely icy, the snowpack so robust. Too often, even in the dead of winter, the temperatures have been insanely moderate.

   So, snow, please. Strand us. Make everything white and still. Bring life to hills and plains that need it.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.