Breaking Bread in the Trump Era

These last few weeks, I have been feeling frustrated, angry, scared, and heartbroken.  Growing up in highly conservative communities, I have always had several friends who had differing political viewpoints than my own.  And yet, I have been struggling to feel any sort of compassion or warmth towards people on the opposing side and that hasn’t felt right to me.  I want to be accepting; I want to be open; I want to be inclusive.  This past weekend brought me back to that reality.

In the name of Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend, Torrey, and I headed to a cozy cabin in the Redwoods.  When we arrived at the check-in office, I started chatting away with Martin, one of the owners of the property.  Within the next few hours of our stay, different circumstances lead us back to the office and we were hitting it off with Martin.  Torrey and I were later grilling outside our cabin and Martin came over with a bottle of Jameson.  We hung out, sharing our stories and different philosophies and in those few hours, we became genuine friends. 

Later that night, Martin knocked on our door inviting us over for quesadillas and to listen to him play the drums.  While Martin and I walked over to his house, he turned to me and said he had two things to share that I wouldn’t like.    

“The first is I smoke cigarettes.  And the second is I voted for Trump.”

The strangest thing happened to me in that moment: I didn’t actually care.  And that felt so good.  I have been feeling so fearful and divided from Trump supporters and it felt good to just not give a shit about who someone voted for.  

I don’t know why Martin voted for Trump.  I don’t know how Martin feels about our current political climate.  And I don’t know if he agrees with what Trump has done these past few weeks.  But I do know that in the short time we grew to know each other, he was genuinely kind and respectful.  

This past election revealed that our country is divided…  How are we going to resolve that?  I don’t have a scientific solution to share with you and to me, there isn’t one.  I believe our individual kind actions towards each other can lead to a collective unified nation.  I believe that we are not powerful as a nation when we are broken internally and individually.  None of this may be groundbreaking to you.  But hopefully in the midst of how you’re feeling, it’s a reminder to stay open and accepting regardless of what we face in these upcoming years.

Betsy DeVos and the Question of School Choice

February 12, 2017

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that a president with no political experience saw no issue with appointing an Education Secretary who has absolutely no experience with public education.  Despite that lack of experience, and after a bitter battle in the confirmation hearings this week, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the head of our educational system in the United States.

I have a great many concerns about this, as her appointment will directly affect my students and me.  Never mind that her confirmation came after she and her family made great contributions to many of the senators who voted on her behalf, which means she essentially funded her own nomination.  Never mind that in the hearings, she was unable to respond to the simplest of education policy questions, such as the distinction between growth and proficiency.  Never mind her stance against Common Core—a whole issue in its own right, worthy of deeper discussion in a later post.  Never mind that she has never ‘walked a mile’, let alone a step, in the shoes of hard-working educators all over the country.

There are a lot of issues, but one of the biggest ones is her staunch advocacy of School Choice.  School Choice sounds great, and in theory, it’s meant to level the playing field.  It’s meant to make underperforming schools ‘step up to the plate’ and to allow underprivileged students access to better schools than those in their own backyard, often in the form of charter or voucher schools.  Parents ought to have a say in where their kids go to school, and should be able to send their kids to the best schools, even if that’s not the one in their neighborhood.  In theory—a great idea.  In reality, not so much.  School Choice, and what that looks like on paper, doesn’t play out in reality. From a position of privilege, perhaps that’s difficult to see, but then again if the one has never walked a mile in those shoes, the inherent design flaws are not immediately evident.

Students can still be denied access to private or voucher schools, so “School Choice” can translate into options for those who have additional monies, and those who are academically advanced and therefore desirable to selective schools who want to boost their academic ratings, but that does not mean that those schools have to accept students who might lower their school’s test scores—it’s bad for publicity, which is often what drives high performing and moneyed students there to begin with.  Of course, those students already have those choices now.  School Choice, here, doesn’t so easily open new doors to those who don’t fit into those categories—the ones School Choice is supposed to lift up and bolster.  The economics of School Choice factor in another way as well.  If every student has $12,000 federal dollars which can follow them to the school of their choice, and the private schools charge in excess of that, only those with additional money can foot the bill—just as is the case now.  Factor in additional transportation charges on top of that, to travel to schools outside the neighborhood schools, plus books, supplies, and uniforms, and you have yet again an equation that closes School Choice to the ones who could most benefit from it.  Those students will be left in the local neighborhood schools, now bereft of the federal dollars which could improve and sustain the improvement to the free public education to which all students should be entitled.  If those schools are to be improved so that access to a good education is, in fact, available to all of our children, pulling federal funding out of those schools cripples their ability to make those improvements, effectively widening the divide instead of leveling the playing field.

One of the most troubling issues is that funding following the students means that federal tax dollars will pay for religious schools, since according to the Department of Education, some 76% of private schools have some religious affiliation.  This is a basic violation of the separation of Church and State.  Parents should certainly be able to teach their kids their own religious and spiritual foundation, but taxpayer dollars should not be required to fund those choices.  Setting aside even that fundamental argument, there is the issue of oversight within private schools, which are not beholden to the same degree of transparency as public schools. Private schools, religious and otherwise, do not have to follow the same standards of professional credentialing or curriculum, and are not held to the same testing standards as public schools.  This makes it difficult to even tell if sending our tax dollars to those private/voucher schools is an economically sound move that accomplishes the intended outcome of raising our students’ academic performance nationally.  I know a great many private school teachers, and many of them are hard-working, dedicated, intelligent individuals.  There are certainly high-performing private schools—of that there is no doubt.  I don’t want this to devolve into an us-vs.-them argument, because I believe that there are great things going on in some of the private and charter schools.  What I do expect, however, is the kind of accountability with our tax dollars for ALL schools that won’t happen if Betsy DeVos’ track record at the state level bears out at the national level.

On Betsy DeVos’ own website, she says “I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.”  She’s been confirmed now, and so far I have yet to hear the specifics, other than devaluing the work of public educators and expounding on the dubious benefits of School Choice.  If she is, in fact committed to transforming our education system, I want to see transformation that takes into account some of the real issues facing the students that walk through the public education system daily.  I want assurance that the perceived ‘fix’ for our schools isn’t the Pied Piper waltzing out of our public schools and trailing along with her promises of fattened coffers without oversight for only those who have the ability to catch the train and follow.

Instead, meet with teachers.  Meet with students where they are.  Use those funds to build up public schools and bring them up to speed with the needs we face in today’s society—all schools, not just select ones.  Invest in building business partnerships within communities, to bridge theoretical education with practical application.  Invest in the kinds of technologies that kids need in order to thrive and succeed in today’s society.  Invest in technical and vocational training that help our kids understand complex tasks of the work force of today.  Invest in mentorships that promote engagement in education.  Invest in the creative and critical thinking that encourages our students to begin thinking about and solving social issues today, and even those issues that haven’t surfaced yet.  Invest in an arts education where students can find a voice for their passions, the expressions of their souls. Invest in a humanities education that recognizes our students are not numbers, not inanimate products of a business, but humans who struggle with poverty, depression, teen suicide, violence, financial uncertainty, abuse, language barriers, disabilities, discrimination, and yes, even the real possibility for some of our students of deportation for them or their family members.  Take all that money out of the public schools and send it to private schools, and those problems still exist, and in even heavier concentrations in those neighborhood schools.  Don’t send our students off scrambling in search of a promise of a better education; give them a better education where they are.

A high-functioning, prosperous democracy depends on an educated populace.  It would benefit all of us to make sure all of our children have a strong education.  I hope Betsy DeVos goes to school—our public schools—to learn what good teachers are doing day after day, because it’s going to take a real education in order for her to positively effect change for all the children of our nation.  I hope she’s ready for it.

 

Some resources and additional reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/11/5-things-to-know-about-betsy-devos-trumps-pick-for-education-secretary/508661/

https://www.au.org/church-state/february-2011-church-state/featured/10-reasons-why-private-school-vouchers-should-be

http://www.betsydevos.com/q-a/

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/news/a52934/who-is-betsy-devos-education-secretary-policies/

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/parents-already-face-tough-school-choice-they-want-simplicity-2017-02-07?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo

http://www.nea.org/home/19133.htm

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-betsy-devos-riling-education-advocates-n716491

http://www.scarymommy.com/what-outraged-parents-can-do-to-defend-public-education-after-the-confirmation-of-betsy-devos/?utm_source=FB

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/08/a-sobering-look-at-what-betsy-devos-did-to-education-in-michigan-and-what-she-might-do-as-secretary-of-education/?utm_term=.369acce1cf28

In a U.S.-Mexican Trade War, No One Wins

In the first week of his presidency, we have seen Donald Trump move forward on some of his campaign promises through withdrawal from the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and ordering the construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. These actions seek to posture his administration as tough on the international stage and putting America’s needs first. However, what happens when other nations refuse to bend to Trump’s will, as Mexico refuses to finance the wall? Sean Spicer, Trump’s Press Secretary, stated that the administration was considering a 20% tax on Mexican imports in order to finance the wall.[i] The logic behind the tax is simple: higher prices for Mexican imports should drive down American demand for such products and harm the Mexican economy.

 

The rationale behind this tax stems from a single assumption that appears to guide most of Trump’s decision-making:

 

  • America, as the world’s largest economy and super power, can withstand and outlast any other country or economy in a trade war

 

Through this assumption, Trump hopes that a 20% import tax would cripple the Mexican economy into submission and believes that the American economy can survive any sort of economic retaliation from Mexico. He is most likely correct. America would most likely outlast Mexico in a trade war, but outlasting Mexico does not mean that America wins. An import tax mostly falls on the consumer, and this tax would be regressive, meaning that the burden falls heavier on lower-income households. The result: many working class Americans—those who swung heavily towards Trump this election—will be feeling the most acute pain in their wallets. As Senator Lindsey Graham said on twitter, “any policy proposal that drives up the costs of Corona, tequila, or Margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad.” Mucho sad, indeed, Senator Graham.

[i] http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/politics/donald-trump-mexico-import-tax-border-wall/

On This Day

January 20, 2017

Today, perhaps more than any other day, the world will be watching our nation.  The world will be watching us.  With baited breath, we wonder what this new administration will bring.  Now more than ever, what we do matters.  How we respond matters.  Don’t wait; act.  Silence is tacit agreement. Speak. Loudly and often.  We cannot allow our voices to be crushed under the weight of this Brave New World.  If we don’t exercise our democratic right to raise our voices and let our representatives know our hearts, we will lose ground.  We already have.  The march to pick up lost ground begins now.

In his inaugural address, Trump said, “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done.  No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.”

Now arrives the hour of action. Yes.  Now, and for the next four years.  Let’s be willing to put in the time and the energy to show what the heart and fight and spirit of America is really about.

Midnight in America

So… this is it.  The Obama presidency is coming to an end, and uncertainty begins at noon Eastern tomorrow.  Every presidential transition carries with it some level of the unknown – we’ve gotten to know the existing president, the media has exposed all the warts, and our opinions are set.  But positive or negative, our feelings are comfortable, because we’e had time to establish and validate them in our own way.

This transition is different in a variety of ways.  The man assuming the title of “most powerful man in the world” was a national  joke as recently as six months ago.  That same man will settle into the Oval Office with the lowest popularity rating of an incoming president in a generation, rampant conflicts of interest, and more than one investigation into his campaign’s relationship with a major foreign power.  Most of his nominees for cabinet positions not only have no experience which qualifies them for the positions for which they’ve been nominated, many of them have advocated for the removal of or filed suit against the very departments they’ve been selected to lead.

Betsy deVos, Trump’s nominee for head of the Department of Education, did not go to public school.  She did not send her children to public school, and it showed during her confirmation hearing.  She has no personal experience with federal (or even personal) financial aid.  She’s an advocate for stripping funding from public schools and moving it to charter schools.  When questioned in committee, she could not figure out the difference between measuring students on proficiency vs growth, and her response to a question about the 1975 IDEA act, which ensures that children with disabilities have the same access to a free and appropriate education as mainstream students, was this:  “I think that’s best left up to the states”.  IDEA is a Federal law.

Rick Perry, former failed presidential candidate and nominee for the head of the Department of Energy, was totally pumped to be nominated for the gig – he thought he’d be able to run around the world lobbying for the oil and gas industry.  He actually had to be briefed on what the job would entail.  And let’s not forget that he wanted to eliminate that department during his 2012 run for president, despite forgetting the department’s name, along with that whole not even knowing what it does thing.

Tom Price, a current congressman and Trump’s pick for head of the Department of Health and Human Services, is an actual physician.  He’s also under fire for purchasing stock in companies who benefited from legislation he helped pass after those purchases.  That’s a giant no-no.

There are more nominees with more issues.  But the bottom line is this:  the incoming administration is not in it for America – it’s in it for itself.  Most of these nominees will fly through confirmation, because elections have consequences.  The other side is in complete control of our government for the next two years.  What are you going to do about it?

Resist.  Peace.

Crash/Burn

The recent North Dakota Crash is representative of all that is wrong with our current political environment.  According to a recent Chapman University poll, 25 percent of those who were asked agreed—and another 7.5 percent strongly agreed—that the government is concealing what they know about the incident.

Here’s the problem:  The North Dakota Crash isn’t a real thing.  The Chapman poll referenced above is their annual Survey of American Fears, which measures the level of belief in nine different conspiracy theories.  This year, they threw in a non-existent scandal to gauge how people would respond to something that sounded “vaguely ominous”.  Sure enough, 33% of the respondents took the bait.

The survey results were posted on October 11, smack in the the home stretch of the election.  Which means that the survey was most likely conducted this past summer, while the two party conventions were taking place.  The link above is an incredibly compelling read (as are the very limited number of comments on the article), and NYMAG.COM’s analysis of the survey is also interesting.  Both the survey and the article illustrate how easy it is to distribute what has become known as “fake news”: all you have to do is write something that has enough in it to interest a certain group.  In the case of the North Dakota Crash, that would be conspiracy theorists, “Big Government” skeptics,  or people who are simply not fans of the current administration.  During the election, we had plenty of fake news about Hillary Clinton, culminating in the pizzagate doozy.

Fake news like this forces the consumer to do the research, and as we have seen, many people just aren’t motivated to do that.  And today’s revelation that the US intelligence agencies presented evidence to both Trump and President Obama indicating that Russia has intel on Trump that they could use to blackmail him is the next step in the evolution of this phenomenon:  Trump’s Twitter reaction:

trump-fake-news-twwet

So… fake news essentially helped this clown get elected – well, along with the true news that Russia took a real special liking to him (because they had the goods on him), but leaks about his penchant for hookers and golden showers are “fake news” and a witch hunt.

The 18 -month Trump presidency is going to be a nightmare.  The Pence presidency is going to be even worse.

 

And the Award Goes To…

January 9, 2017

On Sunday night at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep was given the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award and gave what quickly became a polarizing acceptance speech.  In her speech, she exhorted everyone to hold those in power to account on this monumental eve of the changing of the guards in the United States.  She used her spotlight to call attention to our duty and responsibility to question and speak out where we see injustice and to expect our leaders to comport themselves with dignity and compassion.  In part, she said,

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing.  Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”

The polarizing aspect of this speech is appalling to me.  I find it difficult to take exception to the idea that we should expect the powerful to use their powers for the benefit of all, rather than to use that power to bully others.  There is a flurry of conversation, however, about the fact that those ‘Hollywood types’ have no business politicizing an entertainment forum; they should just, in essence, ‘shut up and just do their jobs’.  How is it, by virtue of their chosen profession, there are people who seem to have decided that they are not entitled to their opinions?  That they are not entitled to share their opinions?  I am not a politician; I am not a legal analyst or a foreign or domestic policy expert.  I have never held a public office, and yet I am an intelligent, knowledgeable individual with valid opinions and insight.  The stakes are high, and my life, and the lives of all Americans, will be impacted by decisions and actions of our President-elect.  Therefore, my opinion matters.  My voice matters.  Why is it that someone like Meryl Streep, or even Jimmy Fallon, Golden Globes host, isn’t entitled to share their opinions as well?  Streep has a career as an actress; it’s not her sole identity.  It’s not the only thing about which she should be allowed to speak.  She is a citizen, just like you, just like me.  She happens to have a very public forum in which to share her opinions and to use her power—the power of access to audience—to speak to and for those who don’t have that privilege.  She is, in fact, modeling exactly what she wishes to see in the leader of her country:  to use her power to model the way in which power should be used in order to benefit others who don’t have a voice.  She did so with grace and clarity, without resorting to name-calling.  Trump, on the other hand, took to Twitter, which is apparently his primary means of communication, to call Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” who is a “Hillary flunky who lost big”.

Streep’s speech was a bold one, because as she was exercising her First Amendment right of free speech, she knew that she was risking losing fans who did not agree with her politics—movie goers who have the right to spend their hard-earned cash at the box office and to speak with their dollars.  She knew that she risked alienating those who did not agree with her views—and she did it anyway.  We HAVE to be willing to put ourselves on the line and speak up for what we believe in, lest our silence be taken for tacit agreement.  So as our President-elect is pushing forward confirmation hearings on a slate of appointed officials who have not yet completed the standard ethics review process, and as Senator Paul Ryan is pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, effectively limiting access to reproductive health and cancer screenings for people who are historically underserved and underrepresented, it is our responsibility to speak out, call our government representatives, and to use our forums no matter how big or small, to continue to hold our government to account.