Monday, March 30, 2015

Jeb's I-love-the-'90s education ideas

   Jelly shoes. Guys with frosted hair tips. Hand-held games. Wallet chains. Sony DiscMan. Netscape. Giga Pets. They're remnants of another decade.

   And so in one regard is the man who offers to shape up America's schools this century. Jeb Bush's education policies come from another time altogether.

   They come from a time when testing and categorizing schools mercilessly, particularly to flog teachers, was new and all the rage. It was so shiny and innovative in the '90s that shortly it was universally embraced, like fanny packs.

    The concept: Concoct a standardized test and give it to all the students. Bow to the test. Preach the test. Live by the test. Have uniform standards. Have uniform everything. Then grade everybody by one test. All will be proficient, and no child will be left behind.

   If the latter is not the result, particularly if some students come from abject poverty with no support at home, then rail against their schools. Talk up school vouchers and for-profit charter schools as helpless children's saviors.

   Jeb's son, George P. Bush, recently elected as the new land commissioner of Texas, was making like fruit not far from the tree the other day when talking up these very things before a Republican audience, pitying all those children "trapped in failing schools."

   Nothing plays to a conservative throng like faux concern about schools in neighborhoods through which no one in the room would dare drive intentionally, much less fund sufficiently through tax dollars.

   You're saying, "Hey, wait. Over-testing and vouchers aren't policies of the '90s. They're policies of today. Look at what Texas Republicans are trying to do right now with vouchers and with a 'new, improved' over-wrought testing regimen."

   Well, you haven't been listening to citizens from the left and right. They are so over this approach to education.

   The '90s? That's when the corporate-style excesses and fallacies behind No Child Left Behind incubated in Texas, notions George W. Bush shortly took to Washington.

   When we speak of corporate behavior, understand that new product development is vital. Hence a group of governors birthed the controversial spawn that Jeb salutes, the set of national standards called Common Core. It is accompanied, naturally, by more tests.

    One thing to be said about the Common Core is that it has brought tea party-style conservatives charging to the table to decry rampant top-down school intrusions they seemed to ignore for decades.

     All of this adds up to a huge backlash that politicians cannot possibly ignore. Bipartisan bills in Colorado, for instance, are being crafted to account for what a task force chairman told the Denver Post is "overwhelming dissatisfaction with the existing system." 

     As for NCLB, name one elected official in Washington who doesn't think it needs changing or abolishing.

      The Common Core, as shown by its rejection in many Republican-controlled states, seems to be last straw for people of varied persuasions who agree that top-down meddling has gone too far. That applies whether the directives come from the state capital or the nation's capital.

      In all of this, "Parents have been awakened as a sleeping giant," writes Diane Ravitch, an early architect of NCLB who now is among its fiercest critics.

     In state after state, legislatures are considering granting opportunities for parents to opt out of NCLB-required tests, prompted by students and parents who refuse.

     Back in the '90s, people were led to believe that over-testing and top-down control were just the costs of excellence for schools. We've been doing these things for three decades now, and we can assume that they are not.

     But Jeb Bush is welcome to run on the supposed success of these oldy-moldy assumptions and bolster them further with intrusions like the Common Core. We'll see how that sells in the primaries.

       Who's up for a Hootie and the Blowfish concert?

    Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Health coverage in 6 places named Denver

   Ninety-four percent of the residents of Denver, Colo., have health coverage. By contrast, if state averages apply, only 76 percent of those in Denver City, Texas, do.

   Do you live in Denver, Fla., east of Gainesville? Based on the state average, you have a one-in-five chance of having no health coverage. Good luck to you.

   The same generally applies if you live in Denver, Okla., just south of Norman -- as well as Denver, Ark., and Denver, S.C., wherever and whatever they may be.

    No, these deficiencies can't be blamed on the Affordable Care Act. They can be blamed on states that have refused to expand Medicaid, and refused billions of federal matching funds, under the act.

   Because Colorado expanded Medicaid, and because it aggressively promoted its state health insurance exchange,, Denver has nearly hit a goal that health-care planners had set for way off in the distance of 2020: 95 percent health coverage.

  It's true that Denver's uninsured rate is better than Colorado's as a whole, which is approximately 9 percent. Urban areas with more primary-care options have higher rates of the insured. That means the picture likely is worse in Denver City, Texas, and those three other red-state Denvers than in their states as a whole. Yes: even worse.

  Those situations would be bleaker still without the federal exchanges and subsidies set up under the Affordable Care Act in states that refused to set them up themselves. Those exchanges would vanish if the Supreme Court were to rule for ACA opponents in the pivotal King vs. Burwell case, now awaiting a ruling.

    It should be hard to imagine anyone would be rooting for the courts to cast 1.4 million Americans out into the street, figuratively, when it comes to the security of health coverage. This suit, and the politics behind it, leaves nothing to the imagination.

   The two states that have the most to lose, in fact, are Florida and Texas, which have the most sign-ups under the federally established exchanges that the court could disallow. So root, root, root against "Obamacare," and see all the chips fall around you.

  Say what you will about this law, and it's all been said, but the facts are that it has changed the American landscape for the better. It has cut the nation's rate of uninsured from 20.3 percent to 13.2 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

    HHS says 14 million Americans have gained health coverage since the exchanges opened in the fall of 2013. Even if those numbers are inflated, as some critics assert – even if it's more like 10 million – well, that's 10 million.

   Back when this was all new, and the federal Web site was having problems, and many insurers discontinued policies (with the exchanges availing backup policies), I wrote that one crucial aspect of the Affordable Care Act was that it had changed the discussion in this country. We were talking about something — health care — that demanded attention.

   Indicative of this is the fact that the do-nothings of the GOP in Congress now think government should — what? — do something to address this national need, even as they say the ACA isn't the answer. The fact is, however, that the Republican alternative promoted by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Tom Coburn would not cover nearly as many Americans. At the same time, it would disrupt the coverage now serving millions.

   GOP front-runner-to-be Jeb Bush, who calls the ACA a "monstrosity," offers an alternative that would cover catastrophic care but not preventive care. Say what? If health coverage doesn't help keep people healthier, what's the point?

   No matter where you live in this land, things are better because of the Affordable Care Act. Overturning it would be catastrophic.

    Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:


Monday, March 16, 2015

Our Congress has become Fraternity Row

    On "The Nightly Show," Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore nailed it.

    After the University of Oklahoma kicked its SAE fraternity off campus for a racist display that even for rich white boys was way past the pale, Wilmore quipped:

   "Don't worry; you won't be seeing any more of those frat boys -- until they're your congressmen."

   Indeed, if one monitored right-wing soundings, one might guess that these SAE dudes already are getting tea party feelers: "Who's your daddy?" and "What's your district?"

  Looks like we have some young hate-speech folk heroes in the making. Right-wing attorney (and former Republican Senate candidate) Stephen Jones has stepped forward to sue OU. Jones' highest-profile gig was defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

   Wilmore's line about Congress had to do with race and racism. I'm thinking, however, that he could have been talking more generally -- about how today's Congress mirrors fraternity life.

   What to expect next from newly installed Senate Alpha Epsilon after its stunt of sending a letter direct to Iran's mullahs?

   Signatories Sens. Pat Roberts and Ron Johnson, in expressions of drunk-tank regret, admitted it would have been better to sign an open letter rather than attempt direct diplomacy. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called this the act of a "breakaway nation" once known as Congress. He has named that nation "Republicania."

  Of course, the Senate Alpha Epsilon prank is in full accord with what's gone on for four years now with those lovable Delta Taus in the other chamber, the Animal House.

  Inviting a running-for-his-political-life Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint session for a photo-op was a disgracefully partisan poke at our president, but what fun.

   Since 50-plus Democrats boycotted, the only real surprise/disappointment was that the Republicans didn't have togas for everyone.

  When can we expect to find that rigor-mortised horse in the dean's office, Deltas?

  Those who recall the movie "Animal House" will recall that the Deltas' cumulative grade-point average was barely more than zero. This is largely what the Animal House on Capitol Hill has accomplished legislatively.

   But let's agree that for these players, the food fight is everything.

  Check out the Senate, where we seem to have a fraternal rivalry brewing for the role of Bluto. We have one tea party Blutarski with some seniority, Ted Cruz of Texas, and a promising, lean, hungry frat pledge, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

   Cotton, in the Senate a whole two months, wrote the letter meant to blow up delicate talks between several countries, over many months, toward making Iran a more peaceable global citizen.

   Like someone at freshman orientation, Cotton had no answer on "Face the Nation" when Bob Schieffer asked why the Republicans hadn't just penned an open letter. Many Republicans are thinking that would have been prudent. But "prudent" is for prudes. It's not for these Senate Alphas.

   Schieffer asked, "Do you plan to check with the North Koreans to make sure that they know that any deal has to be approved by the Congress?"

   The senator's response was the kind of self-assured smile one might unveil for a frat house group shot.

    Cotton's eminence causes me to refer to a 2013 commentary, "Why the Tea Party Can't Govern," by Daniel McCarthy in, of all places, American Conservative magazine.

     McCarthy wrote, "The tendency throughout the right is for the extreme view to crowd out all others because the criteria of debate were set long ago by conditions of opposition, not governing."

      To this, Cotton, Cruz and Co. would probably shrug. Hey, they aren't talking about governing. Governing's not their bag. This is about making a statement about one's place on campus. It's about knowing how to party.

     Toga. Toga. Toga.

     Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email;

Monday, March 9, 2015

‘Directly shaped . . . by racial bias’

   As the Oscars telecast moved on with impassioned acceptance speeches, one pondered the hypersonic rate at which Republican viewers were finding other fare.

  Yes, we're talking five times the speed of sound.

  How many Republicans left when "Imitation Game" screenwriter Dustin Black spoke for gay rights? Or when Patricia Arquette for equal pay for women?

  Suffice it say that near the end, darned few Republican ears heard John Legend sharing the Oscar for the theme song from "Selma" with this:

   "'Selma' is now, because the struggle for justice is now." He was referring to how the Voting Rights Act has been carved away by self-deluded jurists and lawmakers catering to voters from the suburbs of Never-Neverland.

   When the subject is the new racism, we aren't just talking about voter I.D. laws calculated to undercut people of color. We are talking of a national template increasingly harming marginalized Americans.

  The Justice Department last week pronounced that policing practices in Ferguson, Mo., were "directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias." However any objective observer would have to say the characterization fits more than police work in this starkly polarized era.

   Too rarely anymore in politics do we see the quest to find racial harmony and equality. We see politicians whose sworn duty is to reflect the insularity of their respective hutches.

    At the state and national level, the prime reason for this is something that gets too little attention when people bemoan government dysfunction. That reason is legislative redistricting.

    As practiced today, redistricting does more than create government that doesn't work. It also apportions power in ways that accentuate racial divisions.

  Yes, it cuts both ways, partisanship-wise. But the tools of division are the same in any case. The Democratic Party is more diverse and urban; the GOP's prevailing demographic is white, suburban and rural. Leave it to computer programmers to show how either side can stick it to the other.

   The result is many ironclad, lock-cinch, racially identifiable districts, with policymakers catering to them and being openly hostile to the opposition.

   For those mostly white districts, for instance, the fact that shorter voting periods or tougher voter I.D. laws make it harder for poor people to vote is of no concern. They are more concerned about supposed waves of voter fraud, even if evidence of such a wave compares well with last year's yeti census.

   This brings us back to Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which 50 years ago was a literal battlefield – yes, like Gettysburg and Antietam – in the fight for human rights.

  Among those in attendance in Selma to observe the anniversary when President Obama delivered what some considered his greatest speech was his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his wife Laura.

   This was very significant, and much to the Bushes' credit. While nearly 100 members of Congress attended, only a handful of Republicans did, and not one in GOP leadership had planned to until Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's last-second change of heart.

   This is a serious problem for the nation. Members of Congress who think the problems of blacks and Hispanics aren't their own are emblematic of Ferguson-style negligence.

   How do we get out of this mess? The citizens of Florida supported one means in 2010 when they wrote into their state constitution these words regarding congressional and legislative districts: They "may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice."

  Sadly, scandalously, Florida's Republican leadership has done everything possible to block implementation of this language. And why not? Its power is at stake.

  Until this changes across the country, we will get a government around which race means far more than it should today, 50 years after Selma's bloodbath.

   Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, March 2, 2015

The insanity of the death penalty

  The biggest jury pool in history has been summoned in the case of the man who admits he shot dead 12 people and wounded 70 in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

  Whenever it is that 12 untainted jurors can be seated -- among the 9,000 summoned -- to try James Holmes, they should do us a service and stay seated for the trial of Homer Caster.

  Both Holmes and Caster have the same case to make: severe mental impairment. Caster's defense will be easier, and we should ask why.

   Holmes will claim insanity, a fact which seems as clear as his orange-dyed hair and glazed eyes the night he shot up the packed Century 16 Theater.

   Caster? He's 87. He has Alzheimer's disease. Denver police say he went into a rage and killed a fellow Alzheimer's patient in a care facility.

   I have no power of prophecy, but let me predict: Caster won't face the death penalty. His trial won't have dueling experts sparring about his state of mind. The testimony of one physician – his -- will satisfy both prosecution and defense.

   Now, please tell the court why a man who loses his mind to dementia has no control over his actions but one who loses it to schizophrenia does.

   Submitted: Reason No. 1 why the death penalty is insane.

   Sorry, but if I were Juror Summons No. 9,001 in the Aurora case, I'd be bounced in 40 words or fewer:

   No, your honor, I don't support the death penalty, largely because I support the insanity defense, a concept that effectively has been laid to waste in this nation. Without it, capital punishment isn't about justice so much as it about primeval indulgences.

   If ever actions sang out "psychosis," it was those of a college scholar -- young James Holmes -- who weeks before his rampage alternately made online purchases of nearly 5,000 rounds of ammunition (God bless America) and visited University of Colorado campus psychologist who specializes in schizophrenia.

  And yet, whenever this trial happens, we await the prosecution's summoning someone like Dr. Randall Price, the Dallas psychologist who testified that tormented Iraqi veteran Eddie Ray Routh was not insane when he killed "American Sniper" Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield when the two took Routh to a Texas gun range to help him sort out quite obvious emotional problems.

  Routh wasn't insane, no, said Price. He had a "paranoid disorder." And alcohol and marijuana had combined to cause a "cannabis-induced psychosis."

    Prosecutors in the Routh case chose not to seek the death penalty. Routh wasn't sentenced to a psychiatric lockup, however. He was sent to prison for life.

    In Colorado, the Aurora theater killer may evade death by virtue of an insanity plea. But let's face it. Such trials are nothing but a dice roll, games played by dueling doctors. The result: wholly disparate treatment of the equally addled.

   In 1976 the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, in part because of uneven application among the races. It clearly could do the same based on the beyond-impossible odds of applying the insanity defense in most states.

   This legal conundrum aside, it is always curious to see the fealty pledged by so-called conservatives to our criminal justice system when their mantra for all else (war also excepted) is, "Government can't do a danged thing right."

   The Innocence Project has demonstrated how wrong the assumptions can be. What do 325 criminal exonerations based on DNA evidence, 19 on death row, say to you?

  No, your honor. I don't object to the death penalty on monk's grounds, conscientious grounds. A brain tumor likely made University of Texas clock tower sniper Charles Whitman a madman, but I'm glad police took him down. That saved lives.

   However, when one is tried for murder and insanity is no defense, the death penalty is psychosis itself.

   Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: