Tuesday, April 28, 2015

School vouchers: flimflam by any name

 Our subject here is two self-evident and highly political truths: (1) School vouchers, by whatever name they're called, are deceitful at their core. (2) Whatever proponents may call them, school vouchers aren't really about education at all.

  We'll talk about the ramifications of this deceit regarding vital K-12 public institutions, but first:

  In the midst of an arduous analysis of higher education options a few years ago, my family gulped at a revelation about private schooling that gave us a queasy feeling -- a feeling of being had.

  Our son had rung just about every bell at the high school level. Accordingly, he had designs on some prestigious private schools.

  On a college scouting trip, we were excited about the prospect of sumptuous scholarships. Then we put the pencil to the actual costs.

  The case in each instance was that once all prospective assistance was applied, he would have been attending these private schools for almost exactly what it would cost to attend a very good state university, at in-state rates, without any student aid at all. None.

  To sum up our college scouting trip, which cost a pretty penny itself: The price of a private education was set -- almost criminally, to my eye -- just beyond this young man's means.

  I was angry then. Now I thank the heavens for this because he joyfully attended a certain state university in Austin, Texas, and never looked back.

  What does this have to do with the flimflam otherwise known as school vouchers? Well, consider what the Texas Senate just voted to do. It voted to authorize tax credits to attract business donations toward a "scholarship program" for low-income families in certain urban districts to send their children to private schools.

  Ah, sweet deliverance for those "trapped" in "failing" public schools – except:

  Such "scholarships" would be capped at 75 percent of what the state pays per student. That shakes down to about $6,000 a year, according to the Texas Tribune. Hence, a poor family would be on the hook for $1,300 based on the national average tuition for elementary schools ($7,355). Meanwhile, even with such a "scholarship," a family would have to cough up a whopping $7,248 at the high school level based on a national average private high school tuition of $13,248.

  In other words, if a family has trouble meeting rent and putting food on the table, there is almost no chance that it can send its children to Sacred Inheritance Academy, even under the Texas Senate's sumptuous incentives.

  Of course, even if such a family could find that kind of money, the school it desires could decline to admit its child. That's why they call private schools "private."

  Money aside, voucher proponents assume that people in inner-city neighborhoods want to send their children away from their local schools. In truth, offers of this nature rarely create the Oklahoma Land Rush proponents imagine.

  All of this brings us back to the self-evident truth that vouchers are not about education. Don't believe it for a second. Vouchers are about association, the pursuit of homogeny, that which populates private religious schools and white-flight school districts routinely proclaimed "exemplary."

  Let's get real. Those who assert that inner-city schools have failed know the best measure of a school, at least by their standards, is the census of pricy SUVs in the parking lot as classes let out.

  Since poor families wouldn't be able to benefit from the "scholarships" envisioned and, regardless, will wish to associate with their neighbors rather than those who have fled their kind, why would lawmakers continue to push vouchers?

  Principally, it's because for many the whole concept of tax-supported education remains alien and odious. Anything that will tunnel under that institution is something they will support.

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Government of the people, by the contractors

        War is the biggest big-government endeavor.

So riddle me this: Why is it that the politicians quickest to salute the power of war tend to be the most anti-government?

That's right. Those most prone to swear by government in war say our government can't possibly facilitate, say, health coverage for its own people.

Previous generations – witness Medicare and the Public Health Service Act – did not indulge this bizarro duality. They knew the nation (translated: its government) that beat fascism in World War II could do much at home to combat illness, illiteracy and indigence. And they authorized it.

This changed in the '80s. Ronald Reagan convinced sufficient numbers that government wasn't the solution to these matters but instead was the problem.

With Reagan came the sway of free-market guru Milton Friedman. Friedman said the best thing government can do is divest itself of governing. Presto: privatization.

Even to wage war? Oh, yes, to whatever extent politicians could make it happen. This would depend, of course, on whose palms could be greased and by whom.

The other day U.S. District Judge Royce Lambert threw the book at four Blackwater security guards for a 2007 incident in which 14 Iraqi civilians were shot dead and 17 were wounded.

The role of private security firms in armed situations has been one of the dark secrets of our most recent combat engagements overseas.

Whereas the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq touted by George W. Bush was mostly of the bystander variety, the coalition of civilian hired guns – contractors like Blackwater -- was, as Robert Greenwald reports in his film "Iraq for Sale," the second largest fighting force: 20,000 strong.

To be honest, however, Blackwater is but a two-bit player in the privatizing bacchanal that emanated when we last went warring.

         With $138 billion going to contractors to build stuff, run stuff, and guard stuff, the big dog was Texas construction giant KBR Inc. Until it was spun off in 2007, KBR shared with Dick Cheney the closest thing he'd ever known to a foxhole: Halliburton.

         Taxpayers are led to believe that private companies can do the job better and at lower costs. That's just not true. It certainly wasn't in Iraq, asserts Greenwald. Much of "Iraq for Sale" is about horrendous overpricing of services and goods as the result of no-bid contracts and lack of oversight.

Look around, however, and see the privatize-at-any-cost mentality at every level of government these days.

Naomi Klein's book "Shock Doctrine" is a devastating look at the deceit built into privatization. She explains how it becomes a go-to strategy when things go awry – see 9/11 -- or when leaders can construct a crisis – see Iraq -- to rationalize it.

Klein's prime example, however, is Hurricane Katrina. It is convenient to blame government for the response that left so many hanging, but Klein cites ineptitude that was the result of free enterprise – contractors hired by the Bush administration whose heads weren't in the game.

Worse, after the devastation, public institutions that had been so important to the poor of New Orleans – public schools, public housing, public transportation – became easy pickings. Who needs public schools when New Orleans can have for-profit charter schools? Don't rebuild public housing. Condemn and sell.

"New Orleans' public sphere was not being rebuilt," Klein wrote. "It was being erased, with the storm used as the excuse."

        The insidious thing about all of this is when we punt away public functions and when the private alternatives fail, we simply blame government. In too many venues, we have created what Paul Krugman, in Katrina's wake, called "the can't-do government."

But, of course, this nation can do anything it desires. It has the resources, the people, the history. And that doesn't apply just to war.

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


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hardliners desperately seeking Satan

  Chances of war with Iran, says career Middle East journalist Barbara Slavin, went down "a gazillion" with the framework for a nuclear agreement.

  Ah, fudge.

  Never fear. Or fear. Hardliners in Congress will do their very best to change the percentages.

  Slavin, who covered Iran for the Washington Post and is now senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, told The Hill that Congress should "declare victory" and join other nations that helped hammer out the deal.

  With those countries -- Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, with general participation by the European Union -- the United States would be in a powerful position to monitor whether Iran abides by its pledge to limit nuclear development to peaceful means.

  We don't want that, say congressional Republicans.

  That depends on who the "we" is. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of Americans do.

  They agree with President Obama on the best way to ensure peace: "We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities."

   He might have said, "Trust, but verify," but that was Ronald Reagan's line in dialing down nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union.

   Joe Klein, writing in Time magazine, calls the nuclear talks a stunning opportunity for a moderate leader, President Hassan Rouhani, to put that country's hardliners on the sidelines regarding a deal with "the Great Satan" – us.

  Klein remarks on a "weird ideological confluence" between "Likudnik neoconservatives" in Israel and Iranian hardliners. They are speaking as one in opposing the deal.

  I found it interesting that Klein didn't call the confluence a troika, because we have our own hardliners of said mind.

  Calling Iranians "the most pro-American Muslims in the region," Stein notes a disconnect between the masses, particularly young Iranians, and members of the "desperately-seeking-Satan hardliners" who have controlled Iranian policy for decades.

  The same can and should be said of the tea party operatives now calling the shots in Congress. They are no more representative of this great and diverse nation as a whole than the cast of "Duck Dynasty."

  Americans are saying: "Engage. Seek peace." They're saying it about Iran. They're saying it about Cuba.

   Reagan did it with the Soviets. Nixon did it with China. We are now trade partners with Vietnam. Count all members of the World War II Axis as among our very best friends. All of them. Engage. Seek peace.

  The Iranian people are saying it. The Cuban people are saying it.

   The American hard right is saying, "No. No. No."

   On Iran, Sen. Tom Cotton talks blithely about letting bombs do our talking.

   On Cuba, Sen. Marco Rubio says 50 years of isolation isn't nearly enough.

   Klein is right. Some people in power are desperately seeking Satan. But are the masses? The graying Iranians want to relive the heady days of American hostages. The young Iranians want an unshackled economy and "Dancing With the Stars."

   Observe at the same time the American right. It lives in another time entirely. It aches for Cold War-style tensions. It resists modernity. It resists diversity.

   As an emblem of all the above, the Great Satan for America's hard right is the man in the White House. Menace is in his every twitch.

   "There is no option to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," says that man, our president, "that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward."

    That is inarguable. Iran can do what it wishes, arms-wise, if it wants to endure more sanctions. Then the only answer will be bombs. However, if it wants to end its economic isolation, it has a peaceful route to get there.

     This response to tensions based on musty blood oaths is a gazillion times better than the alternative, which is war.

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

Monday, April 6, 2015

We may need to call out National Guard to enforce these rights

  The subjects were protest and time.

  A thoughtful teen told me that protest today just doesn't have the efficiency that protest must have had, say, in the '60s.

  I told her she had a misimpression.

  The Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, I told her, yet 30 years later some school districts still resisted it.

  Now consider the issue of human rights for human beings who happen to be homosexual or transgendered.

  One might say: Behold the modern-day efficacy of the protests that caused Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to walk back his support of a "religious freedom" law clearly meant as a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

  Let's just say that the winners in Indiana, like those presumed to have won in Brown vs. Board of Education, are fools to assume they do not have a long and brutal struggle ahead against an indefatigable foe. It's going to be like a slasher movie with 13 sequels.

  Whatever happens with the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, check back with us in 20 years. Resistance will remain guileful and fierce.

  Part of this will be because, as in Jim Crow days, some policy-makers are where they are to reflect prevailing tendencies and prejudices.

  Amazing are proponents' attempts to explain away the Indiana measure and the one Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson decided not to sign when his son – and Walmart – asked him not to.

  They say all such bills would have done is affirm a 1993 federal law signed by Bill Clinton.

   Ah, but back then the iconic consideration was Native Americans having the freedom to smoke peyote in religious rituals.

   Today, knowing what likely is coming down the pike with legal gay marriage, everyone knows that the operational icon of the moment is -- horrors – two top-hatted figurines topping a wedding cake.

  The problem isn't the wording of such a law this time around. It's the timing and intent -- amid same-sex marriage rulings that social conservatives cannot abide.

  On this subject, it is clearer than ever that those who fancy these measures are Christian-right authoritarians, not the libertarians that "conservative" once denoted. And they are running the Republican Party.

  Conservatives of the other stripe, foremost Barry Goldwater, were dismayed by those who sought to make government the hand-maiden of religion. Goldwater said that one's sexual orientation is no one's business. It only becomes so, and this applies to people of all sexual persuasions, when others are harmed.

  By contrast, Rod Dreher, senior editor of American Conservative, uses telling religious-right terminology in explaining how the civil rights of gays and lesbians cannot be compared to that of the civil rights of people of color: "Sexual expression," he writes, "has moral meaning that race does not."

  But of course, the brand of discrimination saluted by the religious right isn't about "sexual expression." It is about sexual orientation.

  Dreher's appeal reminds one of the claims of the white Citizens Councils of the South. They didn't wish ill for black people, they said. Their problem was "agitators," and communists – like that preacher, Dr. King -- disrupting their idea of normalcy.

   Say what you will, but this new front in the quest for human rights has echoes of King and Gandhi and, dare I say, Jesus Christ.

   Right now, a host of states are readying for battle should the Supreme Court say they can't forbid people of the same sex from marrying.

   Darned right. And along with the 10 Commandments they would erect in the public square, inscribe this statement: "This state does not consider all men to be created equal under the law."

   And, so, as it always has, attaining justice for all -- that Pledge of Allegiance vow -- is going to take time.

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