Why I Voted for Jill Stein

November 8, 2012

I am thrilled to death that Barack Obama won reelection this week. I did not, however, vote for him. Here are five reasons why:

1. My vote is irrelevant. I live in Kentucky. Kentucky was going to Mitt Romney. In fact, for the second election in a row, it was the first state called for the Republicans. It doesn’t hurt that I felt pretty certain Obama was going to win.

2. Climate change. Obama is certainly no Romney (he’s not trying to build a giant pipeline, for instance), but I am extremely worried about climate change. The shit is hitting the fan on that as we speak and the US has pretty much done nothing. Republicans are so in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry it’s hard to blame Democrats too much, but this needs to be an issue. Nothing showed that like the monster storm that wrecked the East Coast last week. My kids are going to grow up dealing with this and it’s going to be a mess and I’d really appreciate it if my government could maybe, kind of spend some time worrying about it (if you are still denying climate change and man’s role therein, please pull your head out of your ass and go read a study that wasn’t sponsored by Exxon).

3. Women’s rights. President Obama’s administration decided young women under 17 need a prescription if they want to buy Plan B because otherwise they might abuse it or something. First, Plan B is freaking expensive. Second, Tylenol is more harmful in large quantities. Third, pander much? Once the Democratic party realized they needed women, they snapped back in line pretty quickly, but this was an egregious slap in the face and stunk of the idea that parents should have paternalistic control of their daughter’s virginity.

4. Civil liberties. If the government decides you have aided Al-Qaeda (and their latitude here is wide) they can lock you up forever without trial. This is not a good thing. At least, not if you believe in fair trials and due process. Those things, for the record, are part of the Constitution.

5. I am not a puppet. For most of the last four years, the Democratic party has been griping about the base and taking us for granted. I have my limits. If a party is going to so separate itself from some of my most basic values while pandering to people whose values are antithetical to mine at the same time, I am forced to conclude that this is not a party that wants m vote.

Democrats do seem to be getting the message that a lot of liberal policies (a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, etc.) are actually pretty popular. There’s a good chance they’ll get my vote back next time, but they need to show me that they care before it’s the 23rd hour of the next campaign.

As the Father of a Daughter

December 8, 2011

As you have probably heard, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently decided for the entire country that young women under the age of 17 shouldn’t be able to buy Plan B. President Obama agreed with her, saying something about being “the father of two daughters” and “common sense.”

I have a daughter and I have heard of common sense, so let me take a crack at this…

Common sense tells me that if your issue is with 10 or 11-year-olds buying something, then maybe you should restrict them instead of restricting everyone under 17 and then only talking about 10 and 11-year-olds.

Common sense tells me that we should realize that some girls, sadly, are raped by people they know – maybe even their fathers – and that just maybe making them reliant on their parents to get a prescription is not the best course to take.

Common sense tells me it’s ridiculous that young women who are – in most states – considered legally old enough to have sex don’t also have full access to birth control.

Common sense tells me that pretty much no one wants to come up to their parents and say “So, um, a condom broke.” And maybe, just maybe, this reluctance is going to hold kids off long enough that suddenly there is a much bigger problem.

Common sense tells me that you can buy a lot of dangerous crap over the counter and that this is only different because the pander-machine that is the Obama administration thinks liberals won’t punish them for it.

I really, really hope Simone would feel comfortable coming to Cate or I if she needed Plan B. I also realize that she might not. And you know what? That’s her right because, if  you ask me, I don’t own her. I am not entitled to control her body until she turns 18. In fact, I don’t control her body now. Simone is a person and she always has a right to autonomy (within reason, it’s not like I let my two-year-old play with knives). This assumption that our daughters need us to control them is misogynist and morally repugnant.

And here’s the thing: This was the last straw for me. I won’t be voting Obama in 2012. Maybe I’ll vote 3rd party and maybe I’ll write in Hillary Clinton or someone else. It won’t be Obama, though. Why? I have a few friends who insist that you should always vote Democrat and try to shove them to the left. But I think there has to be a limit. The Obama administration has always operated as though they had liberals in the bank. Nothing they could do will send us away. If that’s really the case, they don’t have to pay attention to liberal values. And they haven’t. So I’m gone. If they want me back, they’ll have to earn it.

Part 3

Solutions and False Comparison

I’ve spent about 2500 words now telling you why government attempts at education reform are doomed to failure, and you are probably asking yourself, “Okay, Mr. Smartypants, what should we do about it?” This is where I need to talk about false comparisons.

You will hear the following numbers a lot: The US ranks 15th in reading, 24th in math, and 21st in science among the 30 “industrialized” countries. That tells you something, but not what you think it does. Go look at the charts and follow the links to individual countries, what you will find is this: Every single country ahead of the United States has done one of two things, and usually both: 1. It has plowed a lot of money into the educational system.* 2. It takes care of its people. Most of the countries ahead of us are the same ones you can hear certain members of the government decrying as “European-style Socialism.” These are countries that pay attention to their poor and don’t have the majority of their wealth concentrated in a handful of citizens. Amazingly, when they don’t have to worry about eating or working two jobs, students and their parents seem to do better. Crazy how that works.

*A commonly held misconception is that the US spends more per student than any other country. This is true only in a raw sense. In addition to the discrepancies caused by the inequitable funding system we have in the US, things tend to cost more here, so the US is the leader in educational spending only if you don’t adjust for how much things cost in a given country and ignore the under-funding that occurs in poor communities.

So here are your solutions: The bulk of the problem takes place outside the educational system. To fix it, you need to implement wide spread social reform that shows that the country is dedicated to taking care of all of its citizens. In schools, where the rest of the problem lies, it’s time to actually put the money there. No more dilapidated school buildings. No more desks that are older than me. If a teacher asks for books, the money should be there. Wait, I take that back, a teacher should NEVER have to ask for books. Oh, and if you want to start drawing more people to the profession, especially the struggling schools, you’re going to need to start paying better. A lot better. My first year of teaching, I was stuck in one of the very worst high schools in the state. If I’m being honest, I would require a raise of more than $10,000* to be tempted to move back there. Otherwise, the increased workload and frustration that comes with that job just aren’t worth it. Others might not come as cheaply. This is why inexperienced and bad teachers end up in the worst schools. If your company needs someone to take on a hard, shitty project, and they want someone competent to do the job, they are probably going to have to kick in some extra money. Harder jobs within companies tend to pay more. There is a reason for this.

*I don’t want to hear about how I only care about money. If that were true, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I just don’t want to be miserable everyday, and if I’m going to be, I want to be compensated for it.

If the President and others in the government really want to fix education, there are things that can be done, but I have yet to see any of them discussed. Our elected officials need to wake up and pay attention to how the world really works. Until they are willing to do that and drop the posturing, I’m unwilling to listen.

I don’t know exactly why this is, but education reform seems to be a hot topic in the news again (this happens about once every six months). Most recently, I saw that a Rhode Island school fired all of its teachers because the students were performing so badly. President Obama called this accountability. I have been stewing on this whole topic for a while, and I think it’s time I offer some in-depth analysis of everything that gets thrown around. This is lengthy and so, I’m going to offer it in three parts. Today, I’ll give a general introduction and talk about teachers and funding inequities. Tomorrow, I’ll address socio-economic issues, and Wednesday, I’ll have a post about possible solutions and the problems in how we measure the US educational system.

Part 1

All education happens in schools. This is the sentiment. Of course, if you ask anyone from President Obama to your local school board member, you will be told that, of course, there are other factors that are just as important. But, when it comes to policy, the sentiment is always the same: Blame the schools. Or, more specifically: Blame the teachers. This is the easy answer, but it is also horribly misguided. I will attempt to show, in several blog posts, that as long as attempts to reform the US education system insist on focusing solely on what goes on in schools, they are doomed to failure. Let’s take the issues one at a time…

Teachers

Teachers are the big scapegoats. To hear virtually any policy-maker tell it, all of our educational problems would be solved if only we could get rid of those bad teachers. It is a shame that I have to write about how absurd that is. Where do you work? Can you think of someone who doesn’t really do anything and is a drag on the company, but somehow, continues to be employed? I bet you can. Chances are more than one person leaps to mind. Yet miraculously, the company you work for continues to exist. You continue to have a job. The world does not come crashing down. Yes, there are bad teachers. I work with some of them, but most teachers are actually pretty decent at their jobs. Education is exactly like any other industry. There are inefficient employees, but they do not destroy the system.

There is a perception out there that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed. This is untrue. What is more accurate is that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed in an unreliable way. Let’s say you are a brand new lawyer. Just hired. Let’s also say that small firm you work for has hired nine other new associates. So there are ten of you chomping at the bit. Now, let’s say that your boss is masochistic and tells you that she is going to assign each of you a different case. The two of you who perform best will be given large bonuses. The two that perform the worst will be fired. You will be measured by the size of the settlement you win for your client. On the surface, this might sound fair, but then you are assigned your case and you look at the evidence and see that it is overwhelmingly bad news for your client. It would take a miracle to get any money in a settlement. However, you overhear the guy next to you talking about the tape recording he has of his client being sexually harassed. Starting to seem less equitable, isn’t it?

This is the problem with assessing teachers based on standardized tests. Some of us teach AP classes. Some of us teach kids who are barely literate. Some of us teach kids with two supportive parents at home and some of us kids who watched their brothers get shot in a gang fight and whose single “present” parent is actively involved in the drug trade. Now, let me ask you a question, how is it a reasonable to assess teachers based on how the students they see maybe five hours a week score on a standardized test? I’m not saying a decent assessment using standardized testing isn’t possible. I’m saying that every single policy proposal I have ever seen comes nowhere near grasping the inherent difficulties and inconsistencies in trying to shape such a teacher-based assessment. That’s why the whole assessment thing is kind of a sticking point for us.

There is more, of course. Have you heard the rhetoric that comes from legislators? How would you feel if everyday, your boss came in and said to everyone, “Basically, I think you all stink at your jobs. I’m going to ask the board of directors to implement an inequitable evaluation procedure that will tell me who stinks the most. And then I’m going to fire those people.” Doesn’t set your world on fire, does it? So, yeah, you can assess us. I don’t mind that at all, but how about you work with us. Listen to our concerns and we’ll listen to yours and then we can come up with something equitable and we won’t have to go on strike or anything crazy like that. But don’t come in telling us how it’s going to be when you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and expect us to jump on board. We aren’t crazy. If you want reform to succeed, you have to work with the people who will be affected by it, not bully them.

Teachers are, for the most part, altruistic people. We get expensive, advanced degrees so we can go do work that pays only okay, but makes the world better. Don’t talk down to us and don’t try to claim we only care about our own interests. If that were true, we wouldn’t be teachers.

The Real Problems

But, as I pointed out very early on. Teachers aren’t really the problem here. Certainly, not the main problem. Really, there are two major problems. Funding and Student Population. I’ll look at the first one today and have a long post on the second tomorrow.

Funding

The most obviously inequitable aspect of the American education system is the way it is funded. The vast majority of public schools are funded almost exclusively by local property taxes. What does this mean? It’s not hard to figure out. If you live in a wealthy area, property taxes will draw in more money. This will result in schools that can pay for nicer facilities and better teachers. If you live in a depressed area, your schools will constantly lack funds. Your children will not have books. Your teachers will be those who can’t get a job elsewhere.

One very, very easy step in fixing the American education system would be to implement a funding system that at least approaches rationality. Think about this. The poorest schools are in the districts with the most difficult populations. No-freaking-wonder a bunch of schools are failing. It’s like being asked to walk a St. Bernard with a piece of dental floss while the person next you walks their toy poodle with towing chain. Current federal programs are no help as they end up disproportionately awarding funds to schools that don’t need help.

So Far, So Good

January 24, 2009

Barack Obama has been president for less than a week, but I am already feeling very good about this presidency. Consider his accomplishments int the first week:

1. An executive order that effectively saves the freedom of information act from the duplicity of the Bush administration. All of the last administration’s non-crucial documents are going to come out unless Bush/Cheney are willing to sue. The idea of Bush suing to keep his dirty laundry from getting out tickles the hell out of me.

2. Closure of Guantanamo Bay/CIA prisons and halting of related trials. There is no reason America can’t behave responsibly toward people who have been unfairly arrested. Obviously, I’m not in favor of releasing people who actually are terrorists, but if you think everyone in Guantanamo fits that description, then you haven’t been paying attention.

3. Torture is illegal again. That Obama even had to take action on this front shows exactly how terrible the last administration was.

4. Signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law. How wonderful that this finally got through. Women now have the right to sue if they find that they have been unfairly paid less than men doing the same jobs for years and years.

5. Removing the Global Gag Rule. Overseas organizations providing medical aid and other assistance to women are now allowed to talk to them about ALL the options that are available.

It’s hard to believe that I live in a country that needed all of this stuff done, but I’m glad we have a president now who’s willing to do it. Not a bad first week.