Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Case of the Missing Education Policy

Over at The Prospect, I report on the fact that John McCain hasn’t released a detailed education platform since the year 2000, confusing education experts as to how exactly he’s planning on improving our schools — if at all.

McCain’s thin education record raises questions about whether he has rethought either the central idea or the specifics of his 2000 education platform: a $5.5 billion, three-year national experiment in private school vouchers.

Since McCain first advocated vouchers, a growing body of research has confirmed that they do not improve students’ academic performance or help close the achievement gap between affluent white children and poor children of color. Furthermore, the value of the vouchers McCain and other conservatives have proposed — $2,000 — is equal to less than half the average annual tuition at an American private school — $4,689. That means vouchers won’t give poor families many educational options beyond inner city parochial schools, which are far less expensive and exclusive than secular prep schools focused on ensuring college admission. Voucher programs stack the deck against families who prefer a secular education for their children. In Milwaukee, the site of the largest private voucher experiment to date, 102 of 120 participating schools are religious-affiliated.

In 2000, McCain wanted to fund his proposed federal voucher program through repealing sugar and ethanol subsidies. He has continued to argue against such subsidies, but no longer links that platform to education. In fact, McCain’s track record in the Senate shows a long history of voting against redirecting money toward public schools, although he did approve $75 million in funding for abstinence-only education.

Read the whole thing.

How Best to Help FLDS Children?

If you’ve been following the story of the 437 children removed by the state of Texas from a breakaway, fundamentalist Mormon community in Eldorado, you know things are more complicated than they initially appeared: Police raided the compound after they received a call from a woman who said she was a 16-year girl who’d been sexually assaulted there. Now authorities believe those calls were actually placed by a Colorado woman with a history of making false police reports. Yet a Court chose to keep the children, even breast-feeding infants, away from their families and in foster homes, at least for the time-being. It is known that the sect forces girls in early puberty into marriages with older men, and that girls as young as 13 years old have been impregnated. A powerful argument can be made that when a community of adults forces children to conform to such a misogynist, violent, and abusive ideology, it is in their children’s best interest to be raised by adults outside of that community.

Yet voices are beginning to raise in protest of the removal. Warren Binford, a children’s rights expert, writes in the Oregon Statesman Journal:

If these teenage girls are being sexually abused, they should be in protective custody — absolutely. However, most of the children in custody are boys and young children, and thus, not at imminent risk of the abuse alleged.

All children have the right to remain with their families unless and until there is substantial proof of imminent risk of serious harm to that specific child. Due process rights entitle each and every child to individualized findings of harm or serious risk of harm.

It is sensible to assume that, especially for girls, being raised in an environment of sexual coercion has a profoundly negative psychological impact well before the actual acts of physical abuse take place. Still, Binford’s point is well taken; removing young children from their parents abruptly may be equally traumatic. Indeed, there is no way for society to root out every family subjecting their children to such ideas and put those kids into an already over-burdened foster care system. So policy and legal solutions to these problems are unclear. Readers, what do you think? Is Texas right to keep the FLDS children in state custody?

cross-posted at TAPPED 

How Well Do Our Kids Write?

While high school grades remain the single best indicator of how successful a student will be in college, a new study finds that of all the sections on the SAT, the writing section is the best predictor of academic success. The College Board decided in 2002 to roll what used to be the SAT II writing subject test into the SAT I, which now contains both an essay and a multiple choice grammar review.

I am a total writing triumphalist, but I’m a bit surprised the SAT essay section has proven to be so predictive. The topics students are asked to write about on the exam do not at all reflect the typical college assignment. The SAT prompts personal essays on broad, amorphous topics, not exercises in building an argument through carefully engaging with competing evidence. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of the "Document Based Question," which New York State uses on its Regents examinations. Those essays give students a number of primary sources around which to build an argument. For comparison’s sake, here’s an example of an SAT writing prompt:

Being loyal—faithful or dedicated to someone or something—is not always easy. People often have conflicting loyalties, and there are no guidelines that help them decide to what or whom they should be loyal. Moreover, people are often loyal to something bad. Still, loyalty is one of the essential attributes a person must have and must demand of others.

Adapted from James Carville, Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty

Assignment: Should people always be loyal? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Now a really engaged (and privileged) high school kid, one who might even know who James Carville is, could use this prompt to write about the presidential race. But most students will write about friendships, relationships on athletic teams, and other examples of loyalty in their personal lives. If they do so grammatically, include an introduction and conclusion, and begin their paragraphs with topic sentences, they will potentially ace this section of the exam. The sad fact is, most American high school students can’t do even that. And that’s not a problem, of course, that can be solved at the college level.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

Genetics and Health Care

Today the Senate is celebrating passing (by a 95-0 vote) the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The bill, which President Bush supports and is expected to quickly pass in the House, would make it a crime for health insurers and employers to discriminate based upon genetic tests showing an individual is susceptible to a particular disease or condition. Sen. Ted Kennedy hailed the legislation yesterday as "the first major new civil rights bill of the new century."

Indeed, after failing to pass the Equal Pay Act earlier this week, GINDA is a real accomplishment. No one deserves to have their insurance premiums raised, or to be denied coverage, because they carry the breast cancer gene, or because they are genetically susceptible to illnesses that can be aggravated by work, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. But the bill makes absolutely certain to preserve insurers’ rights to discriminate once those diseases have actually presented themselves. In other words, discriminating on the basis of a "pre-existing condition" continues to be perfectly fine, even though discriminating on the basis of genetic susceptibility to a condition will likely soon be against the law.

As an ideology undergirding our health care system, you can see how this is inconsistent. Either human beings deserve affordable medical care regardless of the diseases they have, or they don’t. The sad truth is, protecting the basic for-profit nature of American health care (read: the right of insurers to deny coverage) is what’s needed to attract Republican Congressional support to any reform bill. And that’s why, despite Ezra‘s protestations, I’m inclined to woefully nod in agreement when Congressional Democrats throw water on hopes for universal health care in 2009.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

“Free Range Kids”

Via Newsweek, I’ve just been alerted to a dust-up in the world of upper middle class parenting: Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for the New York Sun, penned a column in early April describing why she allowed her 9-year old son to travel by himself from Bloomingdale’s department store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to their home in Midtown West. (It’s not a very long trip.) She wrote, "[F]or weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call. … Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence."

Predictably, this anecdote garnered joyous cries of support, as well as rabid calls for Skenazy’s head. The writer appeared on television and radio to defend herself against cries of "bad mother!" and even coined a catchphrase for the kind of parenting she supports: "Free Range Kids" — complete with a new blog, of course. At first, I figured the backlash was in part suburban and exurban parents’ horror at the idea of allowing a child to roam New York City alone. People don’t realize that New York’s crime rate is similar to that of Boise, Idaho. New York ranks number 136 in crime among the nation’s 182 cities with populations over 100,000.

But in a follow-up column and podcast, Skenazy recounted her correspondence with parents nationwide, which proved that hovercraft parenting knows no geographical boundaries. A dad in Park Slope, Brooklyn won’t let his 9-year old cross the street to go to the playground. An Atlanta mother doesn’t allow her daughter to walk alone from the front door to the mailbox. A suburban lawyer makes his 11-year old call home immediately after walking one block from her own home to a friend’s house. All this despite the fact that we now know "stranger danger" pales in comparison to the violence and sexual and emotional abuse too many children suffer at the hands of adult family members or acquaintances. And that the number of child abductions has been falling steadily for years.

I’m only 23 and my own childhood was quite different. My friends and I wandered our safe (but unfortunately sidewalk-less) neighborhood after school until dusk. We walked to the local Carvel ice cream shop. We rode our bikes to the library, where I once went wearing mismatched sneakers. We played in the woods. A good time was had by all.

There is simply no way for us to protect our loved ones from every tragedy that might befall them. Many of us learn this lesson in the most difficult way. But it’s sad to think that American childhood has become a time of anxiety, instead of a period of exploration. To the parents out there — do you think Lenore Skenazy is a heroine, or is she misguided?

cross-posted at TAPPED

Young Women Evaluate Candidates Based Upon Substance

I’ve admired Linda Hirshman‘s work in the past, but her recent Slate column accusing young female Obama supporters — including TAP online contributor Courtney Martin — of having "Mommy issues" is terribly reductionist. You can read Martin’s response here, in which she thoughtfully points out that like men, women (even feminist women) are a diverse group who will never vote as a single bloc. But I really think the intergenerational divide between liberal women when it comes to these two Democratic candidates is rather simple to explain. Here are a few substantive explanations with which Hirshman and others who advance her argument should grapple:

1. Young, politically-engaged women are more likely to have been against the Iraq war since 2002 than older women are. And polls show that those young, single women who initially supported the war were among the first Americans to turn against it. Barack Obama has been consistent since the invasion in his opposition to war in Iraq. Hillary Clinton continues to refuse to apologize for her war authorization vote.

2. Generation Y is the most multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial demographic in American history. In Barack Obama, who is biracial and has written about his personal struggle with identity politics, many young voters see themselves — or an idealized version of themselves.

3. Obama’s campaign excites young activists in part because it’s a campaign about organizing. Indeed, Obama’s career began as an inner city community organizer, and his campaign today is offering a summer organizing fellowship.

4. There’s no denying that Obama is the new, fresh face in this campaign, and that young people like that sort of thing. ‘Nuff said.

In short, feminism is important to many young women who are sympathetic to Obama. Feministing, for example, a website for which the Obama-supporting Martin writes, also features a regular "Hillary Sexism Watch," which defends the Senator from misogynist attacks. Hirshman should realize that when a young woman votes for Obama, it isn’t necessarily an anti-Hillary vote — and certainly probably isn’t an anti-woman, anti-feminist, anti-mom vote.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

Last Night’s Education Debate

One of the more interesting moments of the debate last night was the conversation about affirmative action, in which both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said they supported the inclusion of poor white children in the group of people who benefit from college admission preferences. The truth, though, is that most elite colleges already consider class alongside race as they try to diversify their student bodies. Enshrining this concept across the board is a good idea, but only if it is accompanied by a real commitment to racial diversity, as well.

That commitment is under threat this year, as voters in five four more states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) will be asked to either accept or reject ballot initiatives, crafted by the infamous Ward Connerly, that would roll back all affirmative action. While Clinton made a smart move last night in using the affirmative action question as a chance to pivot into a larger discussion of education reform, it’s important to remember that banning affirmative action affects a lot more than just college admissions. It would outlaw state programs that help women and minority business owners apply for government contracts, as well as after-school programs that introduce girls of color to science and technology careers.

Clinton’s statement was helpful, though, in that it reminded us that endlessly debating affirmative action — a policy that can boast of real successes, although it should be tweaked — is really a distraction from addressing the troubles facing our K-12 and higher education systems. She said:

I think we’ve got to have affirmative action generally to try to give more opportunities to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds — whoever they are. That’s why I’m a strong supporter of early childhood education and universal pre-kindergarten.

That’s why I’m against No Child Left Behind as it is currently operating. And I would end it, because we can do so much better to have an education system that really focuses in on kids who need extra help.

That’s why I’m in favor of much more college aid, not these outrageous predatory student loan rates that are charging people I’ve met, across Pennsylvania, 20, 25, 28 percent interest rates. Let’s make college affordable again.

cross-posted at TAPPED

News and Views

I’ve got two new pieces for you to check out. Top at The American Prospect today is my column on why Hillary Clinton might consider running for governor of New York — not just because it would be politically expedient, but also because she might actually be good at the job.

And last week over at RH Reality Check, I offered seven possible policy solutions to battle the epidemic of sexual assault in our military. RH has been nominated for a Webby award in the category of best new political blog. At Slate, Jack Shafer has a bug up his butt about the Webbies, but hey, for small sites like RH, it’s a real boon to be recognized for filling a new space in commentary and reporting. And it brings new readers! Seriously, nobody else is writing as comprehensively on issues of reproductive health and justice. It’s a project I’m really proud to be part of.

In other news, I’m happy to report that I’m now officially a staff writer at TAP, after serving as a writing fellow since last July. Exciting! This also means that we are hiring writing fellows, so please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions about the program, which is — hands down — the best entry level job in magazine journalism.

A Male Birth Control Pill Within 3 Years?

Could be, reports the Washington Times. Tyler Cowen takes interest in the issue mostly as a way to ponder whether men can expect more or less sex if they can tell potential partners they are on the pill. But this ignores, I think, the main utility of oral contraceptives, which don’t protect either partner from sexually transmitted infections: to prevent pregnancy in long-term, committed relationships. Megan McCardle helpfully intervenes:

As any woman can attest, it’s all too easy to miss one or more of those pills. It’s therefore very difficult to trust someone else to take them. It’s especially hard if you are the one who will bear the heaviest price for a failure. As long as women have the stronger incentive to avoid pregnancy, it will be easier to trust them to keep taking their pills. Especially if you don’t live together and thus can’t watch him taking it at the same time every morning.

Indeed. One hopes, though, that the burden of this responsibility could be successfully transfered to men, especially those in committed relationships who are, presumably, deeply invested in their partner’s health and happiness. So men out there: Would you take birth control pills if you knew they were safe and their effects were reversible? Would you trust yourself to remember to take them at the very same time every day?

cross-posted at TAPPED