Occasional Planet http://www.occasionalplanet.org progressive voices speaking out Wed, 27 Aug 2014 13:16:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Rich Hill: An intimate look at poverty’s impact on kids http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/27/rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/27/rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids/#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 13:12:48 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29876 rich hill2On the recommendation of someone who said everyone should see the movie “Rich Hill,” I attended the early show this morning.

I hadn’t read anything about the film before going and didn’t know it was a documentary about three families in Missouri. Rich Hill is near the Kansas border on highway 71 between Kansas City and Joplin. One of the families also lived temporarily in Thayer and Nevada, MO.

The movie focuses on three adolescent boys and lets them tell about their lives in their own way and their own words. To say they live difficult lives doesn’t begin to describe the tragic circumstances they are dealing with. None of the boys has a stable family or capable parents. One boy does receive some affection from his drug-addicted mother and mentally challenged father. The other two boys are constantly criticized for their behavior, which, of course, makes them act out even more.

This evening, I called up the list of programs on my DVR to find something to watch that wasn’t about Ferguson, the police, protests and the racial divide in our country. I chose an episode of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and the guest was Tracy Droz Tragos, the woman who made the Rich Hill documentary. What are the chances of that?

Jon Stewart tried to describe the living conditions in the places where the three boys lived but had trouble verbalizing something so totally foreign to him. I would imagine the scenes in the movie would be foreign to many of us too, but they are just a short drive away from our safe, comfortable homes. A person doesn’t have to go very far off one of Missouri’s major highways to find conditions every bit as heart wrenching as those in Rich Hill.

Stewart commented that the congresswoman who represents that part of Missouri voted to cut SNAP benefits. I assume he was referring to Vicky Hartzler. Some of the progressive blogs mentioned her several times during the debate last year about the farm bill and food stamps. I’ve become so numb to the injustices committed by our U.S. Congress and Missouri General Assembly, that it takes a movie like “Rich Hill” to force me to experience them as real.

One of the scenes that made me shake my head was in the principal’s office when a boy suffering from having been sexually abused by his stepfather as a child wants to call his grandmother to come get him. The principal follows the rules and tells the boy he can’t keep going home pretending to be sick. In an exchange with the principal, the boy exhibits quick thinking and logic that reminded me of an attorney questioning a witness. But this is the same boy who is confused in the gun and knife store when he can’t find any money in his wallet to buy another knife.

I think about the conversations I’ve had with friends about why parents don’t take more responsibility for their children’s education. How can parents not know when school is beginning? Most of them have television, and they must see the “Back to School” ads. How can they not be curious enough to find out when the first day of school is? Why don’t they feed their kids a healthy breakfast and get them to school ready to learn?

This movie made me realize I’ve been asking questions based on all the wrong information. I’m reminded of a recent panel discussion about gun violence where the superintendent of the Jennings School District described why the school provides breakfast and lunch on Saturdays for their kids. She said that, in some cases, it’s a long time from Friday night to Monday for kids dealing with events in their neighborhood that no kid should have to experience.

The kids in Rich Hill shouldn’t have to live in such abusive situations either. Jon Stewart and the filmmaker talked about the boys’ resiliency. One of the boys is, in fact, the parent to his mother, father and younger sister. He keeps hoping God will help his father find permanent employment. When he realizes his father is not mentally or emotionally capable of sticking to one job very long, he rationalizes that his dad has hopes and dreams like anyone else. No rancor. No accusations. After failing at everything else, the dad decides to go west and look for gold or silver. He says he wants to have enough money to take his two kids to Wal-Mart and give them each $400 to buy whatever they want. The postscript on the screen after the movie said that the mother died of an overdose and the boy is living with his father and sister in Colorado.

As we left the theatre, my friend said, “Well, that was depressing.” That’s all she will probably think about the movie, but I always want to understand and ask why things are the way they are.

From “The Other America” by Michael Harrington to “Rich Hill” by Tracy Droz Tragos, have we, as a society, made any progress in the poorest parts of rural America? From the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-sixties to protests in Ferguson, have we made any progress in our attempts to treat all groups with respect and dignity?

Looking back 50 years, I think we can say, yes, there have been some good things happening. Child molestation is a serious crime with serious penalties. In the movie, the stepfather wasn’t arrested because the police said there wasn’t enough evidence. The boy’s mother is now in jail for trying to kill her husband. I’d like to think the police would handle a case like that differently today.

We’ve made progress in many ways, but, in many parts of the country, we still seem to be falling deeper and deeper into helplessness. I have to agree with those who say some people create their own failures by the choices they make. I’m thinking about how almost everyone in the movie smoked, including the 13 year old boy. One of the mothers lights her cigarette from the heating coil of the toaster. Several of them were smoking in bed. Where do they get money for cigarettes? One of the boys calls his grandmother and begs her to spend part of their food stamp money on an energy drink for him. She explains she has only $200 for the whole family, and it has to last a month. The boy who gets kicked out of 6th grade for assaulting other students plays violent video games at home. It makes me wonder what in the world those parents are thinking.

But then I see commercials on TV where scantily dressed supermodels are taking big bites out of enormous hamburgers. I see ads telling us to relax, pamper ourselves, call in sick to work to go to a baseball game, borrow money for cars we can’t afford, TGIF. No one ever says they are anxious to get back to work on Monday. We never hear people talking about how they love their jobs and feel good about making a contribution to society. We leave all of that to charities, churches and other non-profits.

I keep going back to a book I read in the early 1990’s by Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1984 and analyzed how television and other forms of visual entertainment were changing the basic ways people see and process information. Most of Postman’s predictions have come true. We have become consumers not just of material things we don’t need but of political propaganda intended to keep us ignorant. There are ads on TV telling us how to get out of paying taxes. We’re encouraged to blame everyone else for our problems and sue anyone who causes us distress. There are lawyers who will gladly champion just about any case where there is money to be made. We’re more interested in the sex lives of celebrities than in what our kids are learning in school. Newspaper articles discuss what percentage of the tax “burden” the middle class bears. I remember when newspaper articles began with the facts (who, what, where, when and how) instead of an emotional story about one of the people in the story. Education has to be “fun” or kids tune out. But so do their parents, so what can we expect of the kids?

Obviously I am not talking about 100% of Americans. No need to list the hard workers and their achievements. They get their share of attention, and good for them. But can we honestly say the values needed to keep a society functioning properly are strong enough to keep us afloat much longer? The stock market is doing great, but wages haven’t kept up with inflation. CEO’s earn 400 times as much as their employees. Corporations are not embarrassed about using “inversion” tactics to open an office overseas and avoid paying taxes. Sea levels are rising but we can’t do anything about it because fossil fuel companies control Congress and the media.

So who can blame those people at the bottom of the economic ladder for not setting goals, planning ahead or trying harder to be self-sufficient? Letters to the editor blame parents for not providing a stable, healthy learning environment for their kids. But what if those parents didn’t have a nurturing home as children, and their parents didn’t either?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will take programs like that in the Jennings District to open up opportunities for success to students whose families are not up to the task. Students in that district receive good nutrition, after school tutoring and activities, home visits by school personnel including the superintendent, help with buying uniforms and keeping them clean, and challenging classroom activities. Not to mention dedicated teachers. To increase attendance at PTA meetings, parents receive a bag of groceries as they leave. This may be what will have to happen all over the country. There probably are many more examples of communities raising children and giving them the positive environment they need to develop character and ambition.

In Missouri it will be an uphill battle because there are profiteers who have been sabotaging districts that need more help, not defunding. They set up impossible goals and then punish districts that can’t compete. Anyone who goes to see “Rich Hill” will recognize the futility of making more and more demands on students whose splintered lives make it impossible for them to meet our expectations.

I, for one, will not be making any more judgmental comments about a world I know nothing about.

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What I learned from a rabid raccoon http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/26/what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/26/what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon/#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 12:00:07 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29846 Raccoon2Just over a month ago I came face to snout with rabies, one of the world’s oldest identifiable diseases and one of the most dreaded.

Dreaded, because rabies—which is transmitted via saliva when a person (or animal) is bitten by an infected animal, such as a dog, bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox—has one of the highest case-fatality ratios of any of the infectious viruses. (Ebola is one of the viruses that is even more virulent.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only three individuals in the U.S. are known to have survived rabies without having received the post-exposure vaccine.

Doing a bit of research, I learned that raccoon bites account for 44% of all cases. Skunk bites for 29%. Bat bites for 13% and fox bites for 6%. Shockingly, in 6% of all cases, there’s no traceable evidence of a bite at all.

The gap between rabies fatalities in the U.S. and worldwide is shocking as well. Prior to the twentieth century, rabies fatalities in the U.S. were approximately one hundred per year. Today the number has been reduced to two to three per year, due to a long-term, aggressively promoted national campaign of control and vaccination begun in the 1940s and continued in the 2000s  with widespread oral rabies vaccinations.

Sadly, the American success story is not shared worldwide. The World Health Organization reports that the number of rabies deaths worldwide, particularly in Asia and Africa, remains at crisis levels. Each year there are 55,000 reported deaths, mostly resulting from dog bites.

How did rabies intersect with my daily routine? It was mid-morning when I spotted a middling-sized raccoon on my driveway, weaving its way toward me. My first thought was that the animal’s unsteady gait seemed to indicate an injured leg. However, the longer I observed the animal’s movements, the more concerned I became. For although I’d never encountered a rabid animal before, I knew that the raccoon’s confused and oblivious behavior, coupled with the fact that a nocturnal animal was wandering about in the light of day, were signs that something might be seriously wrong.

I quickly went inside to call my local health department to seek guidance. The voice on the phone confirmed that the behavior I described sounded like symptoms of early-stage rabies. To my surprise the voice recommended that I call 911 in order to inform the state troopers and/or local sheriff’s office of the situation. The police? I was more than surprised to learn that they—rather than a public-health organization—would be my frontline defense against a public-health threat.

A few minutes after the 911 dispatcher signed off on my call, a police car pulled into the driveway. A young man dressed in a dark blue uniform ambled toward me. I noted that as the officer approached, his right hand was cupped over his holstered pistol—a sign that I took to mean that he was at the ready to un-holster if the need should arise.

I felt myself stiffening a bit—not out of fear but because I realized in that moment that in any encounter with enforcement officers my behavior, the tone of my voice, and my general demeanor would be sized up from the moment an officer caught sight of me. In short, even though this call was about something as potentially non-threatening as a brown furry animal wandering my property, the officer was sizing me up.

As my spouse continued tracking the raccoon’s erratic path, the young officer calmly informed me that, taking into account the behavior I had reported, he believed the animal to be rabid. His conclusion, he continued, was based on his experience as a hunter (but not, I noted, as someone trained in diagnosing wildlife diseases). He informed me that the only action he was authorized to take would be to shoot the animal. Observing what must have been an undisguised look of shock on my face, he kindly reminded me in his soft-spoken way that rabies is a terrible disease and that infected animals (I noticed he didn’t mention humans) suffer horribly in the disease’s later stages.

To make a long story short, the young officer shot and killed the raccoon. To my surprise, it took three volleys to put the animal down. (Three, because, as the young officer explained, the animal could not take a shot to the head where the virus resides.) With my abhorrence and fear of guns, the sound of those nearby shots is not something I’ll soon forget.

But here’s where the story really goes off the rails. Not only was it up to an individual trained in law enforcement and not wildlife management or veterinary medicine to make the call about a rabid animal, but once the animal was dead, the officer informed us that he was not authorized to remove the animal from our property. Disposal would be our responsibility. I learned that our local health department, lacking money and personnel, would not pick up suspected rabid animals for testing unless there had been direct human contact—meaning a bite or a scratch (so much for keeping accurate statistics on one of the world’s most virulent viruses).

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what I learned that day. An infected animal, potentially posing a serious threat to humans, other wildlife, and domestic animals, was to be disposed of by individuals untrained in appropriate practices.

What did I do in the face of no information, no protocols, no guidance? I went to my computer, of course. Fortunately, the website of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gave clear instructions about the safe disposal of a dead animal. Besides detailed instructions on disposal, I read that the rabies virus remains alive in the body of a dead animal either for a few hours in warm weather or for months in freezing temperatures. I also learned that cats and dogs may contract rabies from a dead animal through an open wound (the raccoon on my property had three) or by chewing on the carcass. I concluded that proper disposal was vital not only for the health and safety of my outdoor cat but also for the other domestic and wild animals in the area and, of course, my neighbors.

This first (and, I hope, last) encounter with rabies was instructive in many ways. Of course, I am now better informed about a highly dangerous disease. But beyond that, the most important was observing firsthand what it means to live in a small community in a rural area where government budgets and personnel are limited, and where making do with the resources at hand is a day-to-day challenge.

I now understand and appreciate that law-enforcement offices in small communities like mine are full-service agencies, and that the duties of their officers go well beyond the usual duties we expect and take for granted—duties like enforcement of vehicle and traffic laws; crime prevention and enforcement; responding to, investigating, and de-escalating domestic incidents; locating missing children; and responding to assaults, burglaries, robberies, homicides, and natural and man-made disasters.

After the deed was done with the raccoon, the officer stuck around for a while and shot the breeze with my spouse. In our low-crime area there was no immediate call for him to rush off. It was obvious to me that he too was a bit shaken by the necessity to fire off those three shots. When he eventually walked back to the patrol car and turned back to look at us, I noticed a certain resigned look on his face. It seemed to say, “All in a day’s work.”


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Women’s rights: 94 years and still counting http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/25/womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/25/womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 15:24:05 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29738 womenunite“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Heck yeah. As of August 26th, 2014 it will have been 94 years since that beautiful sentence helped us further the feminist cause for women’s rights.

The Women’s Rights Movement started (officially) in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott joining forces with Susan B. Anthony to petition for women’s suffrage. It wasn’t until 1920, though, that the amendment received the 2/3 majority ratification by the states to become a national amendment. It took, however, another 64 years for the other 12 states (Mississippi being the last) to adopt the amendment.
In honor of this glorious feminist anniversary, here’s a compilation of some of the best things I’ve seen about women, feminism, misogyny, and how to spark your feminism.

First things first: A Beginner’s Guide to Contemporary Feminist Language Sometimes it’s hard to admit- especially to an intimidatingly hard-core feminist- that you don’t quite understand what intersectionality, transmisogyny, or SWERF is. This article can help.

We’re privileged. Somehow, we are privileged. So, sometimes it’s hard to notice that maybe we aren’t oppressed and don’t face systemic discrimination, but it’s a very real aspect of our society in certain instances. So here’s Why We Need Feminism. and Why Men Need Feminism, too.
Having a role-model for your beliefs can help you accept your own wishes. These 17 Famous Women on What Feminism Means to Them can help.

History is definitely an ally when beginning your adventure into feminism; these little-known 100 Inspiring Women Who Made History can help you out (and another one for good measure).

A big part of feminism today is unity–gaining solidarity with people of all walks of life. Here are some tips on How to Work with Muslim Women; the intersection of Race and Feminism, Women of Color, and how Feminism and LGBTQIA are One and the Same, and What You Can Do To Help.

Embrace your femininity with these 21 Inspiring Quotes Every Woman Needs in Her Life (featuring the intelligence and sparkling wit of Margaret Thatcher, Emma Stone, Charlotte Bronte, Malala Yousafzai, and Beyonce among others)
If you’re looking for something a little more long-term to help inspire you, these 15 books can help you Spark Your Feminist Awakening

We all know humor is the best way to convey seriousness about problems (think Saturday Night Live and the Colbert Report), so here are 19 Tumblr Posts on Misogyny and 31 Tumblr Posts on Being a Woman Today
Maybe you’ve heard of the new movement by some feminists to ban the word “bossy when referring to women. Well, here are 20 more Words That Are Only Ever Used to Describe Women (warning: there are some ladies showing off their middle finger in the GIFs). I mean have you ever described a dude as “bubbly” or “ditzy” or “high-maintenance”? Didn’t think so.

As with the last, irritation at a cultural norm can have a unifying effect. Lot’s of women are tired of hearing these 23 things. Are you?

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Teachers, tenure and Rex Sinquefeld http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/22/teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/22/teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 12:00:04 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29779 tenureblackboardMissouri’s November 2014 ballot will include a constitutional amendment regarding a change to the the teacher tenure system in Missouri and development of a new standardized teacher evaluation system based heavily on test scores. Funding for the initiative is primarily from self-appointed Missouri state CEO Rex Sinquefield, who is once again using his millions to try to buy the state that he wants. Let’s be clear, this initiative has less to do with “rewarding and protecting good teachers” than emasculating Teacher Unions.

Tenure protects teachers who continue to push their principals, who may not have the same interest in trying new and innovative approaches rather than protecting the status quo. Tenure protects teachers from legislators’ indifference to public education, from being blamed for the failure of parents to actively engage in their children’s education, from reprisals from administrators who may be more concerned with their own perceived reputations within their district.

And how can we design a standardized evaluation system that relies heavily on test scores without also taking into consideration whether a student had a good breakfast, whether a student has engaged parents, how long a student spends on the bus. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are socio-economic differences from district to district, so how can we design a common teacher evaluation system based on test scores from, let’s say, the Sedalia district, the Mehlville district, the Kansas City district and the Ladue district.

Within one elementary school in one district, in the classrooms in the same grade level, one teacher may have a one or more students with a learning disability while another may not, making test scores just for the same grade in the same school difficult to compare. Successful schools have teachers who collaborate with each other, providing strong support systems for their students. Given the current emphasis on test scores, there is no incentive for any district to protect incompetent teachers. Rather than firing teachers, which will undermine moral, let’s give them the support and coaching that they need.

State legislators, doing Mr. Sinquefield’s bidding, are creating an environment in which current and future teachers will grow weary of the lack of respect, appreciation and support from the legislature, school administrators and parents, good teachers will get tired of being the focus of blame for the many variables that effect the learning experience, and will eventually just move on to another profession. How can that help our kids?

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Ferguson, as seen by editorial cartoonists http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 13:00:11 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29784 There’s nothing funny about what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting–by a police officer– of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American teenager. But there is plenty of anger and sadness–and a lot to think about. Sometimes, there are no words. And sometimes, some of the best commentaries are visual, as rendered by editorial cartoonists. Here’s a gallery of some of the ways that editorial cartoonists have expressed their views on the situation.

Click to view slideshow.



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10 reasons why school vouchers should be rejected http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 12:00:44 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29644 public schoolRepublicans are for school vouchers because they want to privatize public education, turn education into a money making venture, and use taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Some Democrats support vouchers because of a genuine desire to improve education. They want vouchers for innovative schools with alternative curriculums, creative teachers, and enhanced learning environments. Yet, the truth is, this very small number of truly wonderful innovative private schools will serve a tiny percentage of children and will do nothing to improve public education for the majority.

The answer is finding and adopting best practices within the public and private educational system, not siphoning off money and resources to the private sector. Within public and private educational systems there are plenty of outstanding schools that less successful public schools can emulate. Finding ways to disseminate and integrate those practices is one key to improving public education. Vouchers and privitization are not the answer because ninety percent of American children attend public schools. A truly progressive view aspires to improve education for all children through better public policy, not through privatization of public taxpayer money.

And it’s not like voucher schools are all that successful. Last November, NEAtoday.org reported that 150 students in Milwaukee left their voucher schools, their parents opting to return them to Milwaukee Public Schools. The voucher schools had failed to provide for kids with learning or physical disabilities, or offer after-school programs, or offer art, music and physical education classes.

Since the state legislature created Milwaukee’s school voucher program more than 30 years ago, the program has paid for thousands of city students to attend private schools, of which 85 percent are religious. More than a billion dollars has been siphoned from the public school system to pay their tuition, including more than $50 million this year alone. But studies have shown that students don’t do any better in those private schools. In fact, it’s not such a great investment for the public—or those parents.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State offers a very good list of 10 reasons why private school vouchers should be rejected. The following is an edited and reworded version of the list. I encourage you to read the entire list and the full arguments here.

1. Vouchers force taxpayers to support religion

According to the U.S. Department of Education, religious groups run 76 percent of all private schools. Over 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions, which integrate religion throughout their curriculum and often require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, publicly funded vouchers are paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.

2. Vouchers divert public money to unaccountable private schools

Under most voucher bills, private schools can take taxpayer money and still deny admission to any student they choose. They are free to discriminate against the disabled, or children from other countries. Private schools are also free to impose religious criteria on teachers and staff, and discriminate against gays, people of color, or women. In other words, a voucher system forces taxpayers to subsidize discrimination that would be illegal in a public school system.

3. Vouchers violate many state constitutional provisions

Voucher advocates say that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the church-state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. This is true, but the Zelman case did not address state constitutional issues. Some three-dozen states have church-state provisions in their constitutions that are even stronger than the U.S. Constitution. These provisions often more explicitly bar taxpayer money from being used to fund religious schools and education. Private school vouchers would likely be unconstitutional in most states—and some state courts have already ruled that they are.

4. Americans do not support vouchers

Americans have repeatedly expressed opposition to vouchers in public opinion polls. More tellingly, when people are given an opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through ballot referenda, they always reject the concept—usually by wide margins. Since 1967, voters in 23 states have rejected vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools at the ballot box.

5. Vouchers do not improve student academic performance

According to multiple studies of the District of Columbia, Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs, the targeted population does not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. The U.S. Department of Education studies of the D.C. program show that the students using vouchers to attend private schools do not believe that their voucher school is better or safer than the public school they left.

The study also showed that over a period of four years, there was no statistically significant difference between students who were offered a voucher and those who were not in their aspirations for future schooling, engagement in extracurricular activities, frequency of doing homework, attendance at school, reading for enjoyment or tardiness rates. Likewise, there was no significant difference in the student-teacher ratios in their classrooms or the availability of before-and after-school programs in their schools.

6. Vouchers do not improve opportunities for children from low-income families

Vouchers do little to help the poor. The payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition or other mandatory fees for private schools. Thus, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, uniforms, transportation, books and other supplies can use the vouchers.

7. Vouchers do not save taxpayer money

Vouchers do not decrease education costs. Instead, tax money that would ordinarily go to public schools now pays for vouchers, thus harming public schools. A 1999 study of Cleveland’s program showed that the public schools from which students left for private voucher schools were spread throughout the district. The loss of a few students at a school does not reduce fixed costs such as teacher salaries, textbooks and supplies and utilities and maintenance costs. Public schools run the risk of losing state funding to pay for vouchers without being able to cut their overall operating costs. In addition, voucher programs cost the state money to administer.

8. Vouchers do not increase education choice

Voucher programs do not increase “choice” for parents because it’s the private schools that will ultimately decide whether to admit a student. These institutions are not required to give parents the information necessary to determine whether the school is meeting their children’s needs. Under voucher programs, private schools are often not required to test students, publish curriculum or meet many other standards. Even when legislatures have attempted to mandate accountability standards in voucher programs, private schools have not done what was required of them.

9. Vouchers lead to private schools of questionable quality

In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the availability of vouchers led con artists to create fly-by-night schools in order to bilk the public purse. In Cleveland, one school operated out of a dilapidated building with inadequate heat and no fire alarms. Another school “educated” children by having them watch videos all day. Fundamentalist Christian academies, which are on the rise, offer education far outside the mainstream. They teach creationism in lieu of evolution, offer a discredited “Christian nation” approach to American history and put forth controversial ideas about other religions, the role of women in society, gay rights and other issues. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for this.

10. Vouchers distract from the real issue of reform

Voucher plans usually allow a small percentage of children to leave public schools for enrollment in private schools. This does nothing for the large percentage of youngsters left behind. Most public schools do a very good job; those that don’t should be fixed, not abandoned.

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The 2015 Reagan Ranch calendar just landed in my mailbox http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/20/the-2015-reagan-ranch-calendar-just-landed-in-my-mailbox/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-2015-reagan-ranch-calendar-just-landed-in-my-mailbox http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/20/the-2015-reagan-ranch-calendar-just-landed-in-my-mailbox/#comments Wed, 20 Aug 2014 12:00:21 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29741 reagancalendarimages_croppedIt’s fun to live in a zip code that politicos view as split between Republicans and Democrats. I get phone calls, door knocks and mailings from both sides. And this week, I got a doozy: the 2015 Reagan Ranch calendar.

Each month features a photo of saint Ronald himself engaged in a ranch-y activity: Reagan cutting a log with a chain-saw. Reagan paddling a canoe. Reagan riding a horse. If I hang this on the wall, I can relive those wonderful days of yesteryear, when all was right with the world, before the evil interloper Barack Obama took away our freedoms, became a dictator and simultaneously didn’t do his job.

Sadly, there are no pictures of Reagan killing PATCO, the air-traffic-controllers’ union—a very visible opening salvo in the continuing war on working people and collective bargaining. No pictures of him tripling the national debt, or of the giant Reagan Office Building in Washington DC that gives the lie to Reagan’s espousal of smaller government. And no pictures of Reagan’s closest advisors sabotaging Jimmy Carter’s efforts to release the hostages held by Iran, or of Iran-Contra. That he worked on some of these issues and crises at the Ranch—also known as the Western White House during his term in office—makes me cringe even more.

The four-page letter accompanying the calendar comes “from the desk of Michael Reagan,” Ronnie’s son, to whom has fallen the job of preserving the former president’s saintly image and his 688-acre ranch in southern California. You see, gripes Michael, “the Clinton administration had no interest in saving the site. The California assembly passed up the opportunity to preserve it,” too.

That should tell us something. But Michael presses on.

“Thankfully, Young America’s Foundation—the premier conservative student outreach organization in America—stepped in to save the Ranch…They recognized the powerful impact the Ranch could have in teaching our nation’s youth about conservative principles.”

“…In these days when the leftists in Washington are expanding government and radically transforming our nation, it is vitally important that America’s youth understand my dad’s vision of freedom, so they can fight back against socialism.”

Let’s see: I seem to recall that when Ronald Reagan was a “young American,” he was a Democrat and a union leader–in fact, a six-term president of the AFL-CIO affiliated Screen Actors Guild. As late as 1980, early in his presidency, he spoke out against Poland’s crackdown on labor unions, saying,” one of the most elemental human rights [is] the right to belong to a trade union.

Reagan also expanded Medicaid several times during his presidency and signed legislation that laid the foundation for what is now the Affordable Care Act.

Ignoring these facts, Michael wants me to donate so that young people can go to the ranch for seminars led by “top conservative speakers, such as: “Ted Cruz. Rand Paul. Dr. Ben Carson. Senator Mike Lee. Steve Forbes. Michelle Malkin. Gov. Scott Walker. Ed Meese, and Senator Rick Santorum.”

That’s a rogue’s gallery of some of the worst right-wing conservatives, whose policies hurt young people [especially if they are non-white and/or economically disadvantaged], and restrict their freedoms, such as voting. The young Ronald Reagan—maybe even the older one—would have been shocked.

So, sorry Michael. I know you loved your daddy. But I won’t be contributing $15, $25, $50, $100, $500, or$1,000 “to ensure that President Reagan’s freedom philosophy and accomplishments are passed on to today’s youth and future generations.” Even if I have to pass up the opportunity, for $1,000, to have my name “engraved on the Freedom Wall at the Reagan Ranch.”



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Inside the grand jury: Prosecutor in Michael Brown case holds all the cards http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/19/inside-the-grand-jury-prosecutor-in-michael-brown-case-holds-all-the-cards/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=inside-the-grand-jury-prosecutor-in-michael-brown-case-holds-all-the-cards http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/19/inside-the-grand-jury-prosecutor-in-michael-brown-case-holds-all-the-cards/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 16:04:31 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29767 grandjuryroomThe power to indict or not indict Darren Wilson—the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—is completely in the hands of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. I think this because, in 2007, I served on the St. Louis County grand jury overseen by McCulloch himself.

My time on the St. Louis County grand jury is probably very much like that of current jurors. Here’s how it worked when I was there, and what I learned that is influencing how I look at the case against Darren Wilson:

The summer session of the St. Louis grand jury met every Wednesday for 16 weeks, starting in May. The jury consisted of 12 people. We started as members of the general jury pool. None of us was selected for a regular jury, but at the end of the day, a group of about 50 of us were asked if we would consider volunteering for the grand jury.

A judge explained to us that the St. Louis County grand jury is not an investigative body. [Those kinds of grand juries are usually convened separately, he said.] Rather, the jury we would be on would serve as an alternative to preliminary hearings, to take on part of the load otherwise handled by judges in courtrooms. We had to be available for all [with some excusable absences] of the 16 sessions, from 8:30 am to 5 p.m. The judge then asked for volunteers, and he briefly interviewed each of us. About a week later, I received notice that I had been empaneled.

On our first day, after meeting the judge who would supervise our work [but not be present in the room], McCulloch came into the grand jury room and briefed us on the importance of our work as grand jurors. He explained that our job was to listen to witnesses and to decide—not whether the accused were guilty or innocent—but whether the prosecutor had presented enough evidence to merit a trial, where a trial jury would rule on guilt or innocence. If there was enough evidence, we would vote for a bill of indictment. Neither the prosecutor nor the witnesses [nor a judge] were in the room when we deliberated and voted. After we’d reached our decision, the jury foreman signaled the prosecutor—by pressing a button—to come back in and get the result.

On some Wednesdays, we heard as many as 50 cases. That is not a typo. In many instances, there was one witness—the arresting officer—and the presentation took 10 minutes or less. Defense witnesses and those accused of crimes were not invited. And in most cases—I’d say 95 percent of them—it took just a few minutes of discussion for us to conclude [via voice vote] that an indictment was justified. Occasionally we turned down the indictment. In one case, when we voted against indictment, the prosecutor came back into the room and said that he pretty much knew that’s what we’d do, because even he thought the evidence was flimsy.

And that is why I’m pretty sure that St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch can make the Darren Wilson grand jury go whichever way he wants.

Remember: the vast majority of witnesses that McCulloch’s prosecuting team brings to the grand jury are police officers. He relies on them to make his cases. They are his allies. It seems clear that he has to be reluctant to piss them off by indicting a police officer for what Darren Wilson purportedly did. [By the way, unlike some people, I don't believe that the fact that McCulloch's father was a cop--killed in the line of duty--presents a conflict of interest. But I do wonder if there's a question of loyalty here, because of McCulloch's reliance on cops as witnesses in other cases.]

McCulloch has options: He can present the case against Wilson any way he wants, to get the outcome he wants. Depending on who testifies, and what evidence is brought in, he can make it look like excessive force by Wilson, or he can make it look like a justified shooting in the line of duty. He can present the case in all its nuanced details, or he can streamline it. He can bring in eyewitnesses—or not. He can show the infamous convenience-store videotape—or not. The length and tone of the case is entirely up to him. [We hear, in news reports that McCullough is saying that the case will take more than one day to present. If that’s true, it could mean that he is preparing a thorough and even-handed case--which is what citizens should expect.]

The grand jury can ask as many questions as it wants, and I’m sure they will, if they are doing their jobs as directed. But, as it has been said many times, a good prosecuting attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. However, that assertion also implies the inverse, as well: If the prosecutor doesn’t want an indictment, he or she can make that happen, too.

So, I’ll be watching closely. If there is no indictment in the Darren Wilson case, it could be because the prosecutor himself didn’t want it and presented the weakest possible case. [We will never know, as St. Louis County grand jury deliberations are secret—you’re not supposed to talk about them outside of the jury room. If there is a subsequent trial, the case presented by the prosecution will be indicative of what transpire in the grand jury hearing, as prosecutors often practice their court cases on the grand jury.]

Personally, I’m hoping for the indictment, so that there is a public trial, where a jury can decide what should happen—or not happen—to Darren Wilson.


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How much does our do-nothing Republican Congress cost taxpayers? http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/19/how-much-does-our-do-nothing-republican-congress-cost-taxpayers/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=how-much-does-our-do-nothing-republican-congress-cost-taxpayers http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/19/how-much-does-our-do-nothing-republican-congress-cost-taxpayers/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 12:00:42 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29724 moneyburning2Have you noticed how mainstream media fills up a whole lot of airtime sounding off about our current do-nothing Congress? Just this morning, while driving in my car, I listened to yet another report on public radio about how the 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive in history.

There’s no disputing the pathetic public record of this current Congress. But have legislators actually been doing nothing? It looks to me like the media once again is taking the easy way out. If reporters and commentators would bother to look closer, maybe they’d see that congressional Republicans have been doing a whole lot of something.

And that something has cost taxpayers a bundle of change.

So let’s ask the obvious question: What have House Republicans been doing down there on the Potomac anyway? Well, for one thing they fought long and hard in court to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. You know, that was the act that was struck down by the Roberts court in a 5-4 decision. By the time they’d lost that battle, House Republicans managed to drain a tidy $2.3 million from the public coffers.

And how about the bogus blame game surrounding the tragic events at the American embassy in Benghazi? Republicans just can’t stop wasting time and treasure on whipping up trumped-up charges. Establishing the Select Committee on Benghazi to keep the finger pointing in the news already has cost $3.3 million. This year alone the House Benghazi panel is on track to send another $3 million down the hole. And the IRS has reported that it has  spent more than $14 million in taxpayer money accommodating Republican requests, turning over more than 600,000 pages of documents.

Remember the debt-ceiling battle and the fiscal-cliff debacle? Please don’t tell me Americans have forgotten that bit of theatre. The Republican lie was that voting against raising the debt ceiling was the fiscally responsible thing to do and would strengthen the economy. Way to go, House Republicans. How did that work out for us? That nifty tactic, along with just the threat of a government shutdown, resulted in the first downgrade of America’s credit rating in history. And the price tag to taxpayers? Just a drop in the bucket, folks, at $1.3 billion. (And what, you may ask, does that chunk of change buy these days, anyway? How about some badly needed infrastructure repairs that would create a ton of jobs in the construction industry.)

And don’t forget the government shutdown itself—a tactic heralded by right-wingers as a godsend to the good old Republic. That idiocy pulled a cool $24 billion straight out of the coffers.

And let’s not overlook the fifty symbolic votes by Republicans in the House to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act—amendments House members knew would be doomed if ever they reached the floor of the Senate. So far, Republicans have squandered $79 billion on that fight. But who’s counting? Republicans are banking on the fact that we’re not paying attention to the price tag.

And just in time for the midterm elections, here comes another wasteful tactic from Speaker of the House Boehner and House Republicans. With all of the economic challenges facing the middle class, young people, the working poor, and the elderly here comes a meritless and wasteful lawsuit, suing President Obama for his legally sound executive action delaying a requirement for employers to provide health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

How much is that debacle going to cost? The perennially irresponsible John Boehner and House Republicans don’t have a clue or won’t tell us. And, if their behavior and official statements are any indication, they don’t care. It appears there isn’t a dirty tactic that Boehner and House Republicans can resist when it comes to sticking it to Obama, and they couldn’t care less that the taxpayer is picking up the bill. The trouble is that in their frenzy to sink the Obama presidency, they’re not just sticking it to Obama but sticking it to the rest of us as well.

Unfortunately, most of us are letting them get away with it because we’re too trusting, or too confused, or too tired, or too busy, or too poorly informed to figure out what’s going on.

So here we go again. Boehner and House Republicans are rolling out the lies. The fiction goes something like this: “This is for you, America. Trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

Really? Are we really going to believe them and hand them another term in office?


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Are we on the brink of a social revolution? I hope so. http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/18/are-we-on-the-brink-of-a-social-revolution-i-hope-so/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=are-we-on-the-brink-of-a-social-revolution-i-hope-so http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/18/are-we-on-the-brink-of-a-social-revolution-i-hope-so/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 12:00:33 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29714 protest fergusonAmerica continues to make international headlines as the world watches racial tensions repeatedly reaching the breaking point after the killing of an unarmed African-American:

  • Sean Bell, 2006: shot at 50 times by a team of NYPD officers, hours before his wedding. Officers forced to retire (all but one with pensions intact), but face no other legal consequence
  • Oscar Grant, 2009: shot in the back at train platform by a police officer who “meant to grab his taser” in California. Officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter and serves one year in jail.
  • Trayvon Martin, 2012: shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer claiming self-defense under Florida’s stand-your-ground laws. Shooter found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
  • Renisha McBride, 2013: shot by a Michigan man to whom she, shell-shocked after a car accident, appealed to for help by knocking on his door (who claimed, after changing his story several times, to mistake her for a thief).  Shooter found guilty of second-degree murder and may face life in prison.
  • Jordan Baker, 2014: shot by off-duty Houston, Texas police officer when riding a bike and allegedly looking into stores at strip mall, because the officer was looking for black hoodie-wearing armed robbery suspects, and Baker happened to be wearing a black hoodie. Officer put on administrative leave pending further investigation.
  • Eric Garner, 2014: dies when NYPD officer’s chokehold triggers an asthmatic attack during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Officer’s gun and badge have been taken away, but he has not faced any legal ramifications yet. (Witnesses who filmed the death have been arrested).
  • John Crawford III, 2014: shot by Ohio police in Walmart while he talked on a cell phone and took down a BB-gun from the shelf, (Witnesses say he informed police that it was a toy). State (and potentially federal) investigations still pending.
  • Michael Brown, 2014: shot by Ferguson, Missouri police officer- details still emerging through federal and state investigations. This shooting comes 4 days after the Crawford shooting and 2 days after the conviction of Theodore Wafer for McBride’s murder.

Many of these incidents have been followed by massive protests–sometimes even rioting that results in further violence–calling for justice for the responsible parties and societal change to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Each horror has been followed by calls for institutional change, inspiring hope in the communities that perhaps,we are on the cusp of reform. The message is that black lives are NOT expendable, after all. Looks like it hasn’t happened yet. But I hope it happens soon. We need another massive revolution to reiterate the  the 15th amendment and Civil Rights Acts.

In hope that the deaths have not been in vain, I envision the events to be the slowly growing base that will culminate in a wave of change to turn into a social reality the legal equality promised to every individual, regardless of race, so many years ago.

In the discussion, we need to keep in mind how mass incarceration is disproportionately affecting the black population and is being called “The New Jim Crow.”  We also need to consider the recent outrage over Donald Sterling’s bigoted comments. Each of these events is a signal that the supposedly color-blind state of our society may be more of a myth than we would like to believe. When everything is being analyzed for racist and prejudiced undertones, why do we continue to dole out little slaps on the wrist for heinous crimes? Why do we continue to hesitate to openly mark something as racist, no matter what we find in that undertone analysis, for fear of being called racist ourselves? Why do we continue to silence the people trying to talk openly about race as if they are the ones perpetuating racism?

Researching the case of Michael Brown, I stumbled upon  similarities to the other cases. I saw one similar case only to find another and then another and then another, before I finally had to stop pulling on the  lengthy string of horrors. Of the eight deaths outlined above, only one resulted in the conviction of the perpetrators for murder. One.

America: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Either make change–real change, not rioting and violence– and bring justice, or openly condone the idea that white life is worth more. We need to destroy the idea that we are a color-blind society and admit that there are major flaws in the system that set us up to be less a “post-racial” society and more an “innocent until proven racist” society. But we also need to keep in mind that those flaws can be fixed, and that it is our personal responsibility to make sure they are. We need to stop ignoring prejudice until tragedy strikes and then pretending we never hid it in the first place. Something has to give for the horrors to stop, and I hope we can make it happen soon. I really do.

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