Friday, February 27, 2009

Column from Dane101: Department of Public Instruction Race, WI

I write a column for a local blog called Dane101, which focuses on issues pertaining to Dane County, Wisconsin. I will be posting my columns periodically on this blog as well, but do check out their site too. It's chock-full of goodies for Dane County residents. Without further adieu, my column on the State's Superintendent race...

The choice should be a no-brainer: you should vote Tony Evers for Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction on April 7. With over 34 years of experience serving the students of Wisconsin, Evers definitely has the experience to lead in our state and our schools.

There is, however, a surmountable challenge facing Evers this April in the form of Rose Fernandez, an advocate of many conservative initiatives regarding education in Wisconsin.

Fernandez, a former pediatric trauma nurse with no relevant teaching experience, is a strong supporter of school vouchers as well as the recently controversial virtual school in Wisconsin. She also supports keeping the qualified economic offer (or QEO) in place as well as merit pay for teachers.

These ideas are wrong for Wisconsin. Firstly, increasing the number of school vouchers in Wisconsin (particularly in the Milwaukee area) would hurt students in the state. School vouchers seem like a good idea to many, but they end up doing more harm than anything for students. Vouchers take tax dollars away from public schools and give them to private schools that voucher students choose to attend. This causes public schools to lose much-needed revenue, eventually causing them to fall behind and ultimately close down, failing thousands of students in the process.

Proponents of school vouchers tout the plan’s similarities to capitalistic principles, that competition between schools will ultimately weed out the weaker ones, and that parents will finally be able to send their children to better schools. There are significant problems with these arguments, however: there is no definitive proof that vouchers actually help students do better, and parents don’t always send students to the best school in their area (if they did, they’d all send their children to the same school). Giving taxpayer dollars to private schools, which aren’t accountable to the same government standards that public schools are held to, is yet another concern that makes Fernandez’s support of such a system irresponsible.

Merit pay is another issue that Fernandez is wrong to support. It sounds like a good idea at first – on par with the tenets of capitalism, not unlike the school voucher program. According to the views held by supporters, we should reward good teachers with higher pay, and pay the teachers who aren’t doing well less. This will cause teachers to work harder for their paychecks, which will be good, in turn, for the students.

The problems with merit pay, however, outweigh the benefits. One problem is that teachers might begin to work against one another rather than with each other in hopes that their colleagues will do worse. Essentially, we may end up with a system wherein teachers intentionally sabotage each others’ efforts in order to get that bonus in their paycheck. Who suffers the most from this? The students.

Another problem with merit pay is that there isn’t a real way to practically judge what constitutes a “good” teacher with a “bad” one. Is a teacher worthy of higher merit pay if he or she receives a higher average of scores on standardized tests? Or are they worthy if they lower the number of “F” grades in their classroom? Or should we reward the teacher who works with his or her students every day before and after school, and if so, how do we measure that? The best way to rid ourselves of teachers that perform poorly is the system we currently have, which doesn’t rely upon questionable measurements that may come into play.

Tony Evers understands these issues. Rose Fernandez doesn’t understand them beyond her idealistic capitalism-saves-all mindset (the same mindset that is partially responsible for the fiscal mess our nation is currently facing). Capitalism isn’t the enemy here; I’m not advocating the removal of capitalism from our society. What I am trying to say is that, in certain situations, capitalism doesn’t work. We don’t adhere to a capitalistic mindset for basic social services; for example, the fire department is not run in a capitalistic way. We must treat every student equally, and to do that we must support a public education system that is beneficial to students, not harmful.

Evers is the right choice for schools in Wisconsin. Vote Tony Evers for Superintendent on April 7.

Conservative Contenders

So a new poll by CNN shows that, in 2012, social conservatism will be the driving force behind who will be the Republican nominee for president.
Twenty-nine percent of Republicans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Friday say they are most likely to support Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the next GOP presidential nomination. Right behind the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and well within the poll's margin of error, is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Twenty-six percent of those questioned say they are most likely backing Huckabee, the surprise winner of the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses.
Sarah Palin is likely to get the guns rights crowd as well as the "security moms" who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 amid fears of another terrorist attack. Huckabee, a former minister, will likely get the die-hard religious vote.

Are they a threat to Obama? Palin is very popular with the Republican base, and Huckabee certainly shook things up for the Republican Party in the early days of the campaign -- he took Iowa. But neither represent the shifting change that Americans want to see. It's clear that mainstream Americans see Palin as unintelligent -- see her interview with Katie Couric as exhibit A -- and much of mainstream America would probably be uncomfortable with "amend[ing] the Constitution so it's in God's standards" as Huckabee proposed in 2008.

Am I scared? Only of what these two would be capable of if elected president. But I feel that the American people are happy with Obama -- his honeymoon period is still going strong -- and if he can deliver on his promises, we don't have anything to be worried about.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Preventing unwanted pregnancies

Over 800 thousand abortions were prevented through public funding of family planning services in 2006.

I'll say that again because it bears repeating: over 800 thousand abortions were prevented through public funding of family planning services in 2006.

In addition to that, over 2 million unwanted pregnancies were also prevented. And, for every dollar spent on family planning services towards preventing pregnancies, $4 were saved in costs in taxpayers' dollars towards providing mothers and their children with Medicaid.

All this according to a recent study by the Guttmacher institute, which is a "reproductive-health think tank whose research is generally respected even by experts and activists who don't share its advocacy of abortion rights" (Associated Press).

It is disheartening, then, to see conservative lawmakers and pundits argue against publicly funding family planning clinics. These places do so much more than provide women with abortions -- they provide women with education and contraceptive devices. In fact, according to the article linked above, "Six in 10 women who use a family planning center consider it their basic source of health care."

But, according to die-hard conservatives, contraception encourages illicit behavior, only increasing the problem. Right? Not exactly. As we have seen, teenaged boys and girls continue to have sexual contact even when immersed within abstinence-only sex education classes.

It's time we take sexual education in this country more serious, and time we stop being fearful of promoting promiscuity versus preventing perhaps millions of abortions or unwanted pregnancies -- this should be an issue that unite both sides of the debate.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A quick anectdote/story on Gay Marriage

Visiting some friends in Milwaukee this weekend, my fiancĂ©e and I decided to take the opportunity to go to one of our favorite breakfast hangouts, the Comet Cafe. While there, and while waiting for a table to open up in the very crowded restaurant, I noticed a petition calling for the removal of the Wisconsin Constitutional Amendment that passed in 2006 that officially banned any form of domestic partnerships – marriage or otherwise – for gay couples.

I immediately signed the petition.

I am an ardent supporter of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. There is no justifiable excuse for refusing these couples from marrying one another if they want to do so. The religious argument – that homosexuality is a sin and that marriage is between one man and one woman – doesn’t hold any weight, especially when you consider the fact that religion plays no factor in marriage rights in America (atheists are allowed to wed as well as other non-Judeo-Christian religions).

The ban in Wisconsin, however, does more than just ban marriage for homosexuals – it bans any form of governmental recognition between couples other than marriage. That means that gay couples can't even receive rights in the form of civil unions, a reasonable compromise usually accepted by the pragmatic members of both sides of the debate.

The ban on gay marriage in Wisconsin is unfair. It ought to be removed. We must educate ourselves on the issues in the hopes that we can make life more prosperous, more fair for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Credit where it isn't due

Paul Begala suggests that Republicans who didn't vote for the stimulus bill that recently passed should refuse its funds. I wouldn't go that far, but I do take issue with representatives who voted against the bill now taking credit for provisions of the bill that benefit their constituents.

People like Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, who fought to get a provision added into the bill but in the end voted against it as a whole. A great way to win no matter what the outcome, if you ask me...but not exactly admirable.

You can't have it both ways; you can't oppose something then honestly believe and say you were responsible for the good things that come from it.

It will be interesting to see how Republicans will react should the stimulus bring us out of economic turmoil. Will they celebrate it, or stick to their principles and continue to insist that Reaganomics is the only way to go? Either way, you can bet on them not giving credit to those who actually voted for it in the first place.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bristol Palin: Abstinence for teens "not realistic"

Bristol Palin, the famed daughter of former vice presidential nominee and current Republican Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, recently had an interview with Fox News' Greta van Susteren, in which she gave a candid opinion on her views of abstinence.

The teen mother said she felt that telling other teens to be abstinent was just "not realistic at all," meaning that teens would have sex regardless of what their parents preached.

This is precisely why I am supportive of sexual health classes including other birth control methods in their teachings. Abstinence-only education does not work, as study after study confirms. Teens are still going to have sex, and as we see all too often, it is likely to be unprotected sex.

The best method of teaching teens about sex lies in telling them the truth: abstinence IS the best way of protecting oneself from becoming pregnant or from catching a sexually transmitted disease; but if they're ever in the situation where they may find themselves engaging in sexual activities, they should wear a condom. If they know they're going to have sex, young women should invest in birth control AND insist on the condom.

We need to be honest with our teens as well as look out for what's in their best interests for their health. Abstinence-only education accomplishes neither.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stimulus passes; end of bipartisanship?

The stimulus package backed by the Obama adminstration has passed both houses of Congress. Originally at just over $800 billion, the package has been cut to $787 billion.

A lot of talk has come up about the importance of bipartisanship in the weeks leading up to the bill's passage. Obama stuck his neck out, trying hard to appease to conservatives in hopes of getting their votes. Despite working with both sides, not a single Republican in the House and only three moderates in the Senate voted for it, along with the Democrats.

Is bipartisanship over-rated? I for one hold out hope that it isn't. Despite my liberal tendencies, I feel that there exists an opportunity in every bill proposed for bipartisanship and cooperation so that a law can be passed that most, if not all, can be happy with.

Whether the Republicans want to cooperate with Obama or not, that's up to them. It may behoove them to do so, for they'll get a lot more work done -- and look better in the eyes of the American public -- if they cooperate. And who knows? They may actually get a few of their own initiatives passed as well.

UPDATE (8:50 PM): Barack Obama plans to sign the stimulus bill into law Tuesday in Denver, Colorado.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Socialist Fear Mongering

I wrote this late last night, while Congressional leaders were busy hammering out a deal between the House and Senate version of the stimulus package. Today, it has been announced that a deal has been made, with President Obama stating that he hopes to sign it by Monday.

I think it's still relevant to say what I had written last night. The sentiments I had laid out still remain -- I still feel for those affected by the recent recession, still hope that this bill will help people like Mrs. Hughes, and still resent being labeled a socialist simply because I support programs and services that help people.

Henrietta Hughes is not a misnomer. An unemployed secretary and recently homeless, she and her family represent those Americans who have been hit hardest by this recession. It’s difficult to keep your eyes dry when, at a town hall meeting held by President Obama in Florida this week, she pleads with him to somehow, someway help her.

I bring this up because it’s hard to imagine how anyone can condone such a system that has left Hughes and people like her in the dust. Yet, with nearly eight percent of the American workforce unemployed, conservative commentators insist that the stimulus plan proposed by Obama – and passed by both houses of Congress – is a mistake.

Scratch that: not only is it a mistake in their eyes, but they also insist on calling it socialism.

Such fear mongering is not needed at this time. Yes, it’s a substantial amount of money – over $800 billion to create jobs and give those in dire need a significant tax cut. But it is a plan, one that has both the support of Democrats and Republicans (specifically, moderate Republicans in the Senate as well as Republican governors across the country).

It’s the baseless fear mongering that bothers me the most. One example that comes to mind is Sean Hannity’s characterization of the plan as the “European Socialist Act of 2009.” It’s disgraceful that it’s come to that, to mocking the president’s proposal rather than debating it in a distinguished way.

A healthy debate is one thing, but such criticism only detracts from the crisis at hand in hopes of scaring the American public away from supporting the plan.

Many conservatives I know have told me in the past that nothing gets their blood boiling more than when someone compares former President George W. Bush to Hitler. For me, the comparison of liberalism to socialism does just about the same thing.

What conservatives who make that comparison don’t understand is that liberalism’s ultimate aim is to preserve capitalism. By providing services to people in need, and by providing reasonable subsides to companies that will create jobs contracted out by the government, liberals try to preserve capitalism by keeping it afloat with capital. Conversely, under a socialist model, these industries would be bought out by the government, nationalizing them rather than keeping them in the private sector’s hands.

Still not convinced? Consider this then: is it likely that a socialist “revolution” will occur under a liberal state that preserves capitalism for the most part while providing services to those in need? Or would such a scenario be more likely to happen under conditions where a deregulated economy has left millions unemployed, millions more on the brink of unemployment, and many with homes foreclosed? The answer should be obvious.

I’m not demanding that everyone fall in line and blindly agree with Obama’s plan; believing that such a thing could happen is foolish, for this plan involves a monumental amount of spending that not everyone can stomach. What I am asking for, however, is that the constant use of fear by those extremists on the right end. The American people are sick of it; it’s partially why you lost last November, why calling Obama a radical didn’t help elect John McCain to the presidency.

If you disagree fundamentally with the president’s plan, fine – explain why with meaningful dialogue and let’s move on. But don’t tell me this plan is something it isn’t in hopes of scaring me away from supporting it. Such tactics are without merit and pathetic.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dissent in America

Recently, I wrote a letter to the editor for the Wisconsin State Journal regarding another reader's complaint. They wrote that it was hypocritical for liberals to criticize conservatives for dissenting with the president -- after all, it was once considered “patriotic” by those on the left to disagree with him. But suddenly, according to this reader, it was no longer patriotic to show dissent. Here is my response:

Dissent fine, but be prepared to defend it

I've heard a lot of complaints from conservatives about liberals only welcoming dissent when it's a Republican president running things. From conservative media to recent readers' comments, you'd think that liberals have taken a complete about-face on the whole subject of dissent being patriotic since President Barack Obama came into office.

That is hardly the case. Obama's reaching out to conservative lawmakers for their opinions and concerns shows quite the opposite. In criticizing conservative dissent, liberals are defending their views, not suppressing their opponents' disagreements like conservatives within the previous president's fan base did.

There is nothing wrong with stating an opinion. Conservatives should not only feel welcomed to do so, but also encouraged. At the same time, as their dissent is welcomed, so, too, must they expect a defense from liberals against that dissent, so long as those challenges come in the form of meaningful debate. That's how the "marketplace of ideas" is supposed to work.

If you want to present ideas or dissent, be prepared to defend them; if you can't use logic to do so, be prepared to be dismissed.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On the conservatives' spending priorities

Barney Frank makes an interesting point:
The largest spending bill in history is going to turn out to be the one in Iraq. If we're going to talk about spending, I have a problem when we leave out that extraordinary expensive, damaging war in Iraq, which has caused much more harm than good in my judgment. I don't understand from my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping to get health care, that's wasteful spending. But that war in Iraq, that's going to cost us over a trillion dollars, yeah, I wish we hadn't done that we would have been in a lot better shape fiscally.
I know that people are concerned when it comes to things like national security, and that can sometimes cause us to act in a rash manner. However, the war in Iraq -- which has been proven to be a mistake -- was a war of choice, orchestrated by conservatives who derided liberals as soft on security simply because they wanted to take a moment to think about things before dropping bombs.

When it comes to ensuring our own people are secure -- financially secure or secure in their health -- it seems that many conservatives could care less. We're told we are "socialist" in our thinking for believing everyone has a right to health care, or that, when our economy crashes, we might want to stimulate it.

Believe what you will about economic principles, but it seems like the only alternative the conservatives are offering are the very policies that got us into this mess in the first place.