Thursday, April 27, 2017

The other certainty in life

The big deal in Washington is Trump's hastily sketched out tax "plan," which seems like a way to move money away the government and back to the hands of the wealthy.  He would create a three-bracket system, eliminate almost all deductions (except charitable donations and mortgage interest), and cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% (unless you're a home business--the you can kiss your home office deductions goodbye).
It's a good outline--for people who have money.
Now I won't deny that the Internal Revenue code as it stands is a hot mess.  However, the solution is not this.
Some people would like to put a "flat tax" into place, asking why the rich should pay more.  I'll show you a little math from the 2016 tax workbook:
The highest tax bracket is for incomes of $415,050.00, and these individuals pay 39.6% of their income in taxes.  Minus a $43,830.05 standard deduction, a single person earning the minimum for this tax bracket will pay $120,529.75 in taxes.  That's a lot of money, right?  They pay more in taxes than most people make in a year.  However, let's look at it another way.  Their post-tax income is still $294,520.25, also a lot of money.   Now let's look at an office worker making $30,000 per year.  Their taxes for the year are $4,040, leaving them $25,960 for the year.  That's still less than one tenth of the first earner.  Both of these individuals need housing, food, transportation and healthcare.  Guess who will spend most of the year counting pennies?  (Hint--it's not the first guy.)
Now, let's look at the Trump plan.  The first earner will see a tax bill that drops from 39.6% to 35%, meaning a drop in taxes from $120,529.75 to $101,437.45.  However, what of the $30,000 earner?  Depending on the bracket, this earner could either see a drop in the tax bill from $4040 to $3000.  Or, if this unfortunate soul is in the 25% bracket, that earner's taxes could go up to $7,500 per year--nearly double the current tax bill!
A fashion consultant once said that we should dress for the body we have, not the body we want to have.  So too with national policy.  We should demand policies that positively affect the lives we have, not act like millionaires in a temporary slump and allow policies that only benefit the rich on the odd chance that we find ourselves among their members someday.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Excelsior Scholarship--good intentions, poor implementation

The latest idea to come out of Albany is the Excelsior Scholarship--free college for anyone whose income is less than $100,000 per year, to increase to $125,000 by 2019.  Sounds like an ideal benefit--proof of New York's growing commitment to middle-class families.
It looks good on paper anyway.
The Excelsior Scholarship is little more than a raised cap on New York State TAP grants, with a catch.  The scholarship only covers up to $5,500 per year--which is not the full cost of CUNY tuition.  If you receive any other aid, the scholarship will only provide funds to bring the total to $5,500.  You have to work in New York state after graduation for as many years as you received the grant (which makes sense--it is taxpayer funded).  Recipients must earn 30 credits per year--a hardship for working students.  Also, the grant only covers four years, and is not offered to people with bachelor's degrees.  Since degree holders are not eligible for federal aid or TAP grants, this would have provided much needed assistance to people trying to enhance their skills to keep up with a changing world. 
This provides some assistance, but not much.  This is designed for people taking a traditional route through school--but state schools have a number of non-traditional students.  Students who are taking fewer classes to go to school around a job.  Students getting second bachelor's degrees because, whoopsie, the world changed; the economy's in the toilet, and that B.A. in liberal arts that was supposed to provide a decent living doesn't, and why didn't you get a degree in STEM you idiot.   Students who are taking more challenging degrees that take five and six years to complete.  Students changing majors because that math degree is harder than we thought.  Students taking a semester off because life happens and I got meningitis and couldn't finish the term.  And guess what?  All of them could use the grant, and almost none of them qualify for it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Julia--an imperfect introduction

Over the years, Sesame Street has been a model of inclusion.  They showed college-educated African-Americans in the 1960s, a Deaf main character in the 1970s, death and birth of characters in the 1980s, a Spanish-speaking muppet in the 1990s, and responses to natural disasters and crises in the 2000s.  On Monday, Sesame Street took another step into introducing kids to a diverse, imperfect world with the culmination of their "Be Amazing" initiative: a felt and wire muppet on the autism spectrum.  Julia is four years old, is able to speak (mostly echolalia, which is a legitimate form of communication), loves her stuffed rabbit Fluffster, and flaps and bounces when she is happy.


I'm not going to discuss the accuracy of her portrayal of autism.  There will always be autistic people who share some of her characteristics but not others.  (I'm using identity-first language here, as this is the choice of many autistic people.)  Instead, I'm going to go into the other characters reactions to her.  It's not all bad, but it's not perfect either.

The Good:
  • Julia communicates in various ways, whether it's shuddering at the finger paint, using echolalic speech, covering her ears, and bouncing and flapping.  Alan, Abby and Elmo treat her communication methods as legitimate and respond appropriately.
  • Alan explains Julia's differences to Big Bird in a way that shows that they are a part of her, and does not attempt to remove or suppress her differences at any time.
  • Julia is shown to have talents of her own.  Her painting of Fluffster with wings is not only imaginative, but technically advanced for a four-year-old.
  • When Julia starts bouncing during the game of tag, Abby joins in, not because she's "being nice to the disabled kid," but because it looks fun.
  • When Julia shuts down due to the siren, almost no one gets angry or upset with her.
The Bad:
  • Although most four-year-olds, autistic or not, are not the greatest self-advocates, it would have been nice for Julia to have been able to advocate for herself more without having someone else "translate."
  • When Abby and Elmo explain Julia's differences to Big Bird, it comes off as being patronizing.  They sound as if they are saying, "yeah, Julia's weird, but we're her friends anyway."  This is particularly glaring to me because both characters are supposed to be a full year younger.  It makes Julia's differences stand out more.
  • Big Bird comes off as kind of a dick in this episode, particularly during Julia's shutdown during the siren.  He's an 8' 2" yellow bird whose best friend is a furry, brown, earless elephant, and he can't deal with Julia because she has sensitive hearing?  His comment about the siren not being that loud comes off as dismissive.  (And autistic people are supposedly the ones who lack empathy...)
  • After the intro segment, Julia is not seen or heard from again for the rest of the episode.  I'm hoping this is not the Very Special Episode about autism, and Julia is integrated more into the life of the Street as the series progresses.  I also hope that she has a part in storylines not related to her identity as an autistic muppet.
Overall, I'd give the episode a C+.  It was a fair, but not great beginning.  Let's hope that, as time passes, that Sesame Workshop is improves their portrayal, and Julia becomes a character in her own right. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why--a review

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Last year, I read the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why.  Simple enough premise--Hannah Baker, a suicidal teenager, records a series of tapes before ending her life.  Her friend Clay Jensen receives the tapes, and some very simple instructions.  Listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person.  Stop passing them, and a third party will play the tapes for the entire school.  Oh, and if you received the tapes, you are one of the reasons that Hannah ended her life.  The recipients include the boy who was her first kiss (who spread rumors that they did so much more), catty girls who were "fake friends," a Peeping Tom photographer, the campus rapist, and a guidance counselor who didn't listen to her final cry for help, among other.  Clay?  Nice guy who had a crush on her, and who left her alone in a moment when she was in distress.
Netflix just turned it into a series.  Originally it was meant to be a movie, but instead, each of the tapes becomes its own episode.  The series begins after Hannah's suicide, and while the school puts on a public display of mourning, Hannah's parents are commencing a lawsuit against the school.  Clay receives the tapes, and is one of the last of the listed recipients, so most of the other people on the tapes have already heard them.  And here is where things get interesting.   Clay considered Hannah a close friend, and had a mild crush on her, so he wonders what he could have done to make her suicidal.  Instead, he goes after the other recipients.  Most of them are the "good" kids--athletes, student government leaders, cheerleaders, popular kids--and so they're more concerned about saving their own reputations than about considering the repercussions of their actions.  There is a hope that once someone is "gone," those who bullied and tormented that person, who made their lives a living hell, will feel remorse for what they did.  With few exceptions, none of them feel any remorse at all.  Instead, they try to paint Hannah as an unstable liar.  When that doesn't work, they go after Clay...
The moral is supposed to be that every action has consequences, and that what someone considers a "harmless" prank could inflict serious damage on another person.  However, this lesson seems lost on every recipient of the tapes, including Clay.  Many of them deny their involvement, and with good reason.  If those tapes come out, they could be in serious trouble.  Bryce committed two rapes.  Justin not only assisted Bryce with one (and of his girlfriend, no less), but spread a photo of Hannah with her skirt up.  Tyler stalked Hannah for weeks, and also spread a suggestive photograph.  Sherri knocked down a stop sign, causing an accident in which another student died.  Marcus felt her up against her will.  Ryan stole one of her poems and published it without her knowledge or consent.  So, just with a few people, we have rape, accomplice to rape, dissemination of child pornography (Hannah was a minor), leaving the scene of an accident, destruction of city property, sexual harassment, and theft of intellectual property.  And while the other people named on the tape may not have committed felonies, their actions do not place them in a very positive light either.  They bullied Hannah, spread rumors about her, hurt her as revenge on third parties, and played pranks.  And thought a few flowers and signs on her locker could make it all better.  (A rather amusing scene features Courtney, one of the recipients, and Hannah's mother.  Courtney tells Mrs. Baker that she and Hannah were good friends.  Mrs. Baker replies that if that were true, Courtney would never have used roses on Hannah's memorial, as Hannah hated roses.)  Meanwhile, few of them adjust their behavior after hearing the tapes.  The girl who knocked down the stop sign volunteered to help an old man injured in the accident, and eventually turned herself in.  Another boy eventually calls out all the recipients on the tape for caring more about their own skins.  But the others, including Clay, bully Tyler for being a Peeping Tom.  The athletes named on the tapes beat Clay up to keep him from talking, and Marcus plants drugs on Clay to discredit him.  Most of them throw Bryce and Justin under the bus.  And the sad part is, the school administration behaves no better than the kids, attempting to cover up their own involvement.  In the end, Clay reaches out to an unhappy classmate who has begun self-injury, and gives a digital copy of the tapes to Hannah's parents.
This series is a distressing look at the dynamics of human connections, or lack thereof.  It shows that, for all we think that we are "good" people, we have the capacity to do great harm.  That at our core, most of us are self-absorbed and cruel.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cyberbullying--new wineskins, old wine

Recently, an eleven-year-old boy committed suicide because he thought his girlfriend killed herself.  It turned out that the girlfriend had used a friend's Snapchat account (and the help of some of her other friends) to play a prank on the boy.  And now, she's in trouble with the law.  Reading the comments on the article, so many blame easy access to social media for the girl's actions. 
Yes, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are relatively new.  Teenagers acting like assholes however?  Has been going on since the dawn of time.  This same prank could have happened without a single cell phone.
Girl convinces a few of her friends to tell Boy that she committed suicide and then cuts school for the day.  Boy, distraught, runs to a teacher, who has Girl's parents called.  Parents are unable to find Girl (because no one has a cell phone), and call the cops.  Boy, devastated, jumps off the school roof at lunchtime.  Meanwhile, Girl comes home from the mall and has to deal with not only her furious parents, but some incredibly ticked-off cops.  Same prank, same outcome--and nary a cell phone or social media account in sight.
While I don't think the girl should be charged with homicide, she needs to realize that actions have consequences, and that a "cute," "harmless" prank is neither.  Bullies (and that's what this girl is, social media or no social media) bully other kids because it's fun, and they get away with it.  Once they have their asses handed to them with hard consequences, they usually stop, because it's not worth it anymore.  Certainly a harassment conviction and a couple of nights in juvie will straighten out her head.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Destigmatizing mental health--who benefits?

There is a bill in Congress that has passed the House, and I wonder how many of you have heard of it.  It's called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, affectionately nicknamed the "Murphy Bill" after Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.  Among its provisions is the "Compassionate Communication on HIPAA"--which basically means if you have a mental illness, and a family member--or your doctor--decides that you are "in crisis," your right to privacy goes out the window.
Meanwhile, after Carrie Fisher's death, we learn that she was a tireless advocate for destigmatizing mental illness.  A number of people started coming out last year as "mentally ill."  Destigmatization for the win!
But who wins?
The juxtaposition of these two events shows that we have not destigmatized mental illness at all.  What we have done is destigmatize mental illness treatment.  Specifically, we have destigmatized one particular treatment model--behavioral therapy and psychotropic medication.  But, as the above bill shows, we still see the mentally ill as unstable and incompetent.
Mental illness is not simple.  It's a festering, bubbling cauldron of trauma, loneliness, financial stressors, chemical dependency, marginalized identity, and living in a society that does not handle pain well.  Because it is so complicated, there cannot be a simple, quick, "one-size-fits-all" solution.  Unfortunately, the limitations of insurance, our culture's need for the "quick fix," and the idea that "doctor knows best" lead us to pushing the above model.  When it works, it works.  When it doesn't--then a complicated problem can become very bad very quickly. 
We know that this model works for the provider.  They have a steady stream of patients.  And we know it works for the various social service agencies who can pat themselves on the back and say that they are doing something.  But what of the patient?  What can the patient do when a medication doesn't work, or the behavioral model of therapy is a poor fit?  If they go with the program, they are wasting time and resources on a treatment that doesn't work.  If they don't--then their doctor can say they are "in crisis."  And the stakes are high.  So much rides on keeping a provider happy.  Those determined to be "mentally ill" can potentially lose their children, their jobs, their access to schooling, and their freedom.  And now, they can take away your right to privacy as well.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do we really love the geeks?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "geek is chic."  Comic book movies are coming out at least once a year, shows like Dr. Who and the Big Bang Theory have sizeable followings, and computers are as much a part of life as televisions once were.  Geek culture appears to be in.
But what of the geeks themselves?
Being a geek has never been about specific fandoms or about black-rimmed glasses.  Star Wars may have been a geek obsession as a sci-fi movie, but it was also the highest-grossing film for its time.  I doubt it was because a handful of kids in glasses and calculator watches saw it over and over again.  True geekery is about single-minded drive.  It's about latching onto something and pursuing for its own sake.  And that drive is something that our culture doesn't always appreciate.
As an example, let's look at a subject that is poorly understood and somewhat maligned--mathematics.  Since I started studying mathematics, I've noticed that the response I get from non-math people when I bring up what I'm studying is similar to the response I would get from introducing a two-headed garden snake--revulsion mingled with awe that I would even go near such a thing.  Sad, really.  Hidden Figures may have been nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt that enrollment in math departments and calculus classes will go up as a result.  (The class I took with the highest attrition rate was Calculus 2).  Similarly, with computer programming.  Last semester, I took an intro course in computer programming.  Out of a class of 30, maybe half turned up for the final.  Most people dropped out because it was "too hard."
Our culture loves the end result of geekery more than the geeks themselves.  We love programmers for giving us apps and games for our phones.  Does that mean that we would want to talk to an actual programmer about languages and debugging techniques?  Sheldon Cooper is abrasive and obnoxious.  He's also a Caltech engineer who makes a buttload of money.  How many of my readers laugh at his antics?  How many of us want a real Sheldon Cooper in our lives?  We love us some Game of Thrones, but we also call George R. R. Martin a "fat fuck" when he can't get the next volume out fast enough to satisfy our curiosity.  (And let's be honest here.  How many Game of Thrones fans actually heard of A Song of Ice and Fire before the show came out?)
What we love about "geek culture" is when something is so well done that it goes mainstream.  Because with it comes status and money--the two things geeks don't really care about when choosing an interest.  Sure, we may want our manga to sell.  Internet videographers would love to be the next Nostalgia Critic.  But only so that we can support ourselves doing what we love.  Anyone who pursues a field solely to "get rich" with find the work a disappointing slog.  And those who have been successful only were because their passion made the product special enough to be appreciated.  And that passion may create some of the greatest works and theories in history, but it doesn't make for scintillating coffee klatch conversation.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jesus Camp and the 2016 election

In 2006, a documentary called Jesus Camp was released.  It followed three children who spent their summer at an Evangelical camp, and was largely a commentary on Evangelical Christian culture.
Now, I don't have a problem with the camp's existence.  My own children attend Jewish day camps every year.  Every summer, they pack up their modest bathing suits and their siddurim for a summer of fun with other Jewish kids in a Jewish environment.  So, if Christian parents wish to have their children in a religious environment, fine by me.
The documentary followed three of the camp attendees.  Levi was homeschooled using Christian curriculum materials that completely misrepresent science.  Rachael read Chick tracts and tried to convert strangers in a bowling alley.  Tory was in a Christian dance troupe where the costumes were military-knockoff camo gear.  But that wasn't my problem.
My problem is with the culture of the camp itself.
The documentary included scenes of the children praying over a life-size cardboard statue of then president George W. Bush.  The camp's culture encouraged patriotism and fealty to the Republican Party and its ideals.  At one point, the camp brought in an anti-abortion speaker who talked about the "millions of babies being killed" in a way that made the children cry.  He also taped the kids' mouths with red tape that said "LIFE" and handed out miniscule rubber baby dolls that represented embryos.  There was also a scene in which the campers are picketing the Supreme Court regarding an abortion case.  Camp director Becky Fischer was quoted as saying that she took her cues from Islamic extremists, who brainwash their followers into suicide bombings.  Although Fischer is not advocating direct acts of violence, she is pushing the children into specific political thought.  Christianity is now about conforming to an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, pro-Republican agenda.
Here's the other problem.  This documentary was released in 2006.  It is now 2017.  Every single one of the kids in that documentary is now old enough to vote, and more than likely did so in the last election.  Their main concerns would not have been equal rights, or preserving health insurance for the working poor, or increasing employment opportunities.  Their concerns would have been reversing the Obergefell decision, giving protected status to Christian companies a la the Hobby Lobby case, reversing Roe v. Wade, and the spread of Christianity at the expense of non-Christians.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Meanwhile, back in Congress...

As I said in my last post, it's been a busy month for the President.  On this day, February 20, he has already been in office for one month and has managed to still maintain the country's attention.  (It's not always the good kind of attention, but it is attention.  #WeAreAllSweden.  #RememberBowlingGreen.)
But today, I want to talk about that other branch of government, one that's a lot less popular.  Give it up for the US Congress!  535 members, split between the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives.  The Senate is headed by VP Mike Pence (who only votes if there's a tie), and the House is headed by number 3 in line for the White House, Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin's District 1.  Former VP candidate.  Guy who is partially responsible for Romney's bid for presidency tanking.  Infamous for wanting to dismantle Medicare.  And according to Queen Mom, with the country treating the president like a chimp on a unicycle, he has his chance.  I disagree.
See, the current administration is not the Congress of Queen Mom's time.  So much has changed since my mother first cast a ballot.  No more must we wait for our news at 6 and 11.  The rise of cable television meant not only the public access channel would live-stream Congress, but the Cable News Network (CNN) would provide 24 hour news coverage focusing on the entire world.  (Yes, I know cable has been around since the 1940s, but few people really had it until the 1980s.)  And CNN is not the only player in this game.  Fox News and MSNBC have also joined in along with Internet reporting in real time.  The only question is separating the truth from the not truth.  CNN is still considered fairly reliable.  And, having been derided as "fake news," they are no fans of the current administration.  This includes the 535 members of Congress.
Congress is now being scrutinized from all angles.  Unlike TV news, Internet news has the response button.  Stories can be liked, commented on and shared within a matter of minutes straight to our phones.  And now, the people can react within minutes, instead of saving up their frustrations for the ballot box.
"We're going to dismantle the independent ethics commission!"
"Like HELL you are!"
"Never mind!"
The Affordable Care Act, supposedly the first thing to go under the new administration, is still largely intact.  No longer was the discussion about high rates and faulty exchange websites, but about twenty million Americans--voters and the children of voters--losing their healthcare.  And this is a law enacted in 2010.  Imagine the outcry if longstanding programs like Medicare and Social Security wind up on the chopping block.  No one will do it because they will be out of office in the next election cycle.  And unlike the President, who has four years to convince the country that he should be re-elected, the House has only two year terms.  Paul Ryan has to think about how well dismantling Medicare will go over. 
I don't imagine it will go over well.
Unlike the AFDC, which was all but dismantled in the 1990s (TANF, the law that followed, provides fewer protections and more limitations), Medicare and Social Security are not "poor people's programs."  (which, to many, mean "black people's programs.)  They are "everybody's programs."  They are programs which middle-class, middle Americans rely upon for their retirement and healthcare for aging parents.  Telling the under-55 crowd that they will not have the same assistance that their parents (or even in some cases, older siblings) have, will not go over well in Wisconsin's District 1.  And, given how many members of Congress have come home to torches, pitchforks, tar and feathers already, I don't think anyone else will suggest it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

It's only been three weeks...

Next Monday is President's Day, and appropriately enough, it will also be the one-month mark on this presidency.  So, how are we doing so far?
  • Inauguration Day protests led to the arrests and detention of six journalists.
  • Comparisons of the size of the crowd between the Obama and Trump inaugurations led to the coining of the term "alternative facts."
  • Trump has falsely claimed that between three and five million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.
  • Trump has labeled CNN "fake news."  (CNN has found so many "alternative facts" during press secretary Sean Spicer's press briefings that it has refused to air them until they could be fact-checked.)
  • Steve Bannon of alt-right propaganda site Breitbart has been added to the National Security Council--supposedly without Trump's understanding of what he was doing.
  • Trump's business interests are being held by his children, including his overseas holdings, in violation of the emoluments clause.
  • Trump has taken two weekends off to play golf (and it hasn't even been a month.)
  • Trump's executive order banning entry of anyone who has citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia was successfully challenged in court within 48 hours of being signed, and overturned in federal court not long afterwards.
  • ICE raids in urban areas have led to the detention and deportation of numerous immigrants.
  • A botched raid in Yemen led to the death of a Navy SEAL, the loss of an Osprey Plane, and the deaths of 25 civilians, including nine children.  Moreover, the Al-Qaida target remains at large.
  • National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been forced to resign under suspicion that he has been involved in unlawful communications with Russia.
  • Tornadoes throughout the Southeast have not been responded to in a timely fashion by FEMA.  Meanwhile, a dam breach in California is being completely ignored.  (Makes me long for the days of "Brownie".  He did a heckuva job...)
A presidency riddled with scandals, questions, and poor judgement.  And it's only been three weeks.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What did I sign up for--Abuse and divorce

So, it looks like I'm taking a little break from everything wrong with American politics to discuss--everything wrong with Israeli politics.  Specifically, this cute little story out of Jerusalem.
A woman sues for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence.  Naturally, the Beit Din cannot force the man to give a get, but they have the power to sanction in case of refusal.  In this case, they did not use that power because--the husband only assaulted his wife after she left him.
Wow.  Just--wow. 
"When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house," (Devarim 24:1).
"She does not find favor in his eyes" are the grounds for a get, according to Torah text.  I'd say assaulting her was evidence that he found her "unfavorable."
The rabbis argue that if she hadn't left, he would never have assaulted her.  However, I would argue that, based on everything I've read about DV, physical assault was the escalation of a situation that has gone very, very bad.  Usually, the wife leaving is a catalyst for escalation of abuse, and this can range from physical assault to murder.  (I actually know someone this happened to.  The wife was a victim of emotional abuse for years.  She left her husband, and he physically assaulted her.)  Moreover, the rabbis' statement sounds a lot like victim-blaming.
To me, there should be no discussion.  The man assaulted his wife.  We have it on the record.  This is grounds not only for divorce, but a restraining order.  The Torah is about compassion.  Where is the compassion for the abuse survivor?  Why do we have none for this poor woman?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Betsy DeVos's Department of Non-Education?

So, a few days ago, the controversial Betsy DeVos was confirmed for Secretary of Education.  A Secretary of Education who has never set foot in a public school as an educator, student, or even parent of a student, who supports religious charter education (read: Christian).   Her positions on education, not to mention her lack of experience, were so controversial that two Republicans "crossed party lines" and voted against her.  The deciding vote was cast by our VP.
In my time on this planet, I attended eight brick and mortar schools (six public, two private), homeschooled myself, briefly homeschooled my children, and enrolled them in yeshiva under court order.  I've seen a lot of schools.  Ignoring some of the obvious problems (like DeVos's comments about guns in school being needed in case of bear attacks), here is why I find her appointment "problematic".

Private schools, public funds:  DeVos is a strong proponent of "school choice," which sounds lovely but isn't.  In practice, this means that parents can send their children to any school that has space, opt for publicly-funded charter schools, or take their cut of per-pupil funding and use it for private schooling.  Again, all this sounds nice in theory.  In practice?  Well...
One of the last schools I attended was an all-girls boarding school in New England.  During the summer before I attended, the main classroom building underwent a complete renovation.  Well, almost complete.  There were no built-in accommodations for anyone with a physical disability.  No elevators.  No automatic door openers.  No ramps.  Not even Braille on the classroom doors.  And this was in 1996.  The Americans with Disabilities act passed in 1990.  The message was clear--disabled students were not welcome.  (This "enlightened" attitude extended to mental illness.  Several students going through mental health crises were quietly "counseled out.").
While it sounds great that parents can have access to any school for their children, in practice, parents are constrained by location, availability of transportation, knowledge of options and the time to follow through with applying to them, finances, and their children's academic performance and behavior.  (Not too many parents in western Pennsylvania, for example, will "choose" to send their children to the Bronx High School for Science).
Public school, by definition, must take everyone who lives in their district.  Private schools can cherry-pick based on student ability, family finances, lack of behavioral or emotional problems, parental involvement, etc.  At least one yeshiva, for example, turned us away because I had taken out an order of protection, and I'm sure more than one turned us away because I came in as a single mother.  So all that lovely school choice comes down to the schools doing the choosing.  And this is in urban areas, where there are actually many schools.  What happens in a rural area where the only remaining public schools convert to Christian-run charters?  What about Jewish children?  Or children whose parents are openly gay?  What sort of "choices" will be available to them?

IDEA--Federal Protection Left to the States:  During the confirmation hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), asked Ms. DeVos about the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Ms. DeVos stated that this was best left to the states.  I will repeat this.  A federal law to protect children with disabilities is best left to the states.
IDEA is already problematic because it is an "unfunded mandate."  Schools have to comply, but are not given the funds to do so.  Moreover, students with disabilities are routinely stigmatized against, the idea being that they take time and attention away from "the kids who can learn."  This leads, in part, to educational triage.  Only students with the severest and most glaringly obvious disabilities receive assistance at all, while those with milder issues are left to flounder in classrooms without assistance.  Moreover, attempts to "mainstream" often mean that students with disabilities are placed in regular classrooms with teachers that have no training in special education and a hostility to the disabled students.  These children are then pegged as "unable to learn," "unmotivated," "lazy," or "behavior problems."
What will happen if this law is left to the states?  Will some states choose to ignore it altogether?  Will children with disabilities be excluded from the classroom altogether, at a point in history when they are only beginning to progress?  Will they be shunted into "special education classrooms" that are little more than warehousing?  Will geography determine access?

Curriculum Questions: I live in NY State, which has some of the strictest regulations for homeschooling in the USA.  And I agree with many of them.  Children have a right to be educated, and I believe that, at a minimum, the parents should be accountable for ensuring their children stay as close to grade level as possible.  Imagine my shock, then, when dealing with the yeshiva system.  My older daughter's social studies textbook in the second grade listed Ronald Reagan as "the current president" (this was in the 2014-2015 school year, so a bit outdated?).  Their yeshiva teaches next to nothing in the way of history or science.  (They get a science teacher every two weeks for an hour.  That's 90 hours, or only 1/12 of the school year). 
The lack of national curriculum prior to No Child Left Behind is not well-known.  School boards have enormous power to decide curriculum.  For example, in Massachusetts, I learned that Jamestown was the first European settlement in what is now the United States (it was actually St. Augustine), and in Nebraska, it was implied that FDR was evil incarnate.  Once curriculum choices are left entirely to the schools, what will happen?  Will schools decide not to teach algebra anymore?  Will evolution be taught as scientific theory, or as mythology? 

Looking Past K-12:  When we think of "education," we often think of our neighborhood public schools.  But public education includes publicly funded Early Intervention programs, Head Start, and public colleges and universities.  Since Early Intervention is a program to assist infants and toddlers with developmental delays "catch-up" to their peers, the questions about that fall under my discussion of IDEA.  But what about Head Start, UPK, and college?  What happens to their funding?
Not every parent gets the luxury of staying home with their children during the pre-kindergarten years.  I did, and it was a wonderful experience.  But there are many parents who are working two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their families' heads.  They can't read their children picture books, teach them the ABCs, or take them to parks and museums on a daily basis.  For more affluent families, private preschools have been around for years.  In 1965, Head Start was created as a means to provide some "catch-up" to the children of impoverished families who couldn't afford private preschools.  The program was expanded in 1981, and today serves over 1 million impoverished children, who might receive no pre-school preparation otherwise.  In an age of academic-based kindergarten, this preparation is crucial for success.
And then there is college.  Funding for public colleges and universities has been drying up for years.  The result is rising tuitions and a dearth of full-time professor positions, as retiring professors are replaced by poorly-paid adjuncts.  Adjuncts hold the same degrees as professors, but are hired on a class-by-class basis with no benefits or job security.  Many have to teach seven classes at three or four colleges just to survive.  The real losers here are the students, who don't get any real attention from their overworked instructors.  (It doesn't help that they have to juggle academic courseloads with one or more jobs.)  As professor positions dry up, enrollment will decline at the graduate level.  (This is already happening in law schools, as high tuitions are a dearth of jobs are leading people away from the legal profession).  Moreover, as tuitions rise with limited return, how many students will even go to college anymore?  What will happen to public funding for Head Start, college, and Early Intervention?  And how will that affect education as a whole?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Religion, politics, and math

Recently, I saw an article about Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies protesting Trump's executive order regarding immigration.  These companies are upset because so much of their workforce comes from the Middle East and South Asia.  Queen Mom remarked that she agreed with the idea that tech companies should hire Americans, and stop importing their talent.  My response?  "You couldn't find enough people in this country who could do the work."
Since the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s, tech jobs have held a certain panache in the public's mind, and the increased emphasis on the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has become a major educational issue.  However, we as a society will never accomplish this in any meaningful way for one reason--it is socially acceptable to hate math.
I am currently studying for a second bachelor's degree in actuarial mathematics, and I run across this a lot.  Here's how the conversation usually goes:
"What are you studying?"
"Actuarial mathematics."
"What do you do with that?"
"Assess and manage risk for financial institutions, banks, insurance companies, etc."
"Sounds fascinating.  I could never do that, though.  I hate math."
End conversation.
Being a math major is a lonely life.  You can't discuss your coursework with anyone, because they get bored with it.  If I accomplish something, like properly negate a statement, or remember a Taylor expansion, I can't tell anyone because they'll laugh at me.  But if my artist friends paint a piece, or get cast in a role, or write a story, they can show it off without risking public derision.  I've started joking that the three taboo subjects for mixed conversation are religion, politics, and mathematics.  Religion and politics, are of course, invitations for controversy.  Math is not controversial.  It's just all but universally hated.  Even educated people with advanced degrees feel this way.  Donald Trump has a higher approval rating than math does.  Most people I've run across outside of my math classes would rather spend a day with their most hated political figure than take a calculus class. 
The sad irony is that math isn't even that hard.  I consider myself a mediocre mathematician at best, and yet I still grapple with differential equations and proofs as part of my coursework.  Math is more about perseverance than raw talent.  But so many people shrug it off as boring and useless.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Keeping a Republic

After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what had come out of it.  Franklin famously answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it."
The first Constitutional Convention was truly an amazing things.  Thirteen sovereign nations brought their shared goals and some knowledge of English Common Law to the table and created a set of laws like no other.  An independent judiciary.  A free press.  Checks on the executive branch's power.  No state established religion.  The right of private citizens to bear arms.  Fair treatment to those accused of crimes.  Rights guaranteed to the state governments.  And, as time went on, these protections expended to include the creation of the electoral college, the abolition of slavery, equal protection and voting rights for all citizens, and term limits for our head of state.  The Constitution of the United States of America has truly been one of our treasures for 230 years.
Is it coming to an end?
Last Friday, President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven different countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and the Sudan).  It applied to all immigrants from those countries, even those who had green cards or US passports.  People flying in from those nations when the order was signed were either detained at airports, instantly deported, or removed from flights.  Americans protested in airports from New York to DC to Chicago the Boston to Philadelphia.  Others sued in federal court.  By the next night, a federal judge in Brooklyn had declared a partial stay on the order for those who had already arrived, and ordered them released from detention.  Three more federal courts followed suit.  Checks and balances ruled the day.  And there was much rejoicing.


It didn't last.
By Monday, we learned that Customs and Border Patrol were defying the judicial orders in favor of the executive order (which had effectively been overturned by the court.)  Moreover, they were denying the detainees access to attorneys and advocates.  Several members of Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, attempted to intervene on the detainees' behalf, but were also turned away.  By Monday night, the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, was fired by the president for refusing to defend his executive order.
Somehow, none of this looks like my idea of "making America great again."
This series of events started with immigration and has gone on to be an attack on the very foundations of our government.  We have always prided ourselves on our smooth transitions of power, our checks and balances.  However, those checks and balances seem to be on life support.  Our freedoms are in jeopardy, as the president muzzles government agencies and his office presents "alternative facts" (how Orwellian).  Protestors are derided as "snowflakes" and "sore losers."  And the freedoms that we take for granted are being denied to those who have already been granted access.
It's time to ask ourselves: Can we keep this Republic?

Coming out of retirement--Lysistrada and personal responsibility

So, I had to go underground for a while because anything I blog could and would be used against me in a court of law.  However, as of April 2016, that is no longer an issue, since I am no longer espoused to Builder (hereafter known as Mr. X) in the eyes of G-d or the courts.  And there was much rejoicing (Yaay!).  Much has changed, of course.  I have gone from homemaker to mathematics student (because STEM fields pay enough to support two kids in the most expensive city in America).  The girls are in school, and hating every minute of it (Le sigh).  And now, I get to be a lot more outspoken!
So, on to our wonderful political scene, or that which has brought me back into blogging.  There has been a lot of discussion of late about the dismantling of the ACA, or Obamacare, by our new administration.  One of the first items on the chopping block was the mandate that insurance companies fund contraceptive devices.  (Remember, as always, contraceptives are not abortifacients.  You can't terminate a pregnancy that never happened.  All comments referencing abortion will therefore be deleted.)  The pushback against this rule always came down to statements about how women should take "personal responsibility."
OK, I'm game.  We'll take a page from Lysistrada, a Greek play about women who stopped having sex with their husbands to protest a war.  From here on in, all women of childbearing age should simply stop having sex with men.  Husbands, fianc├ęs, boyfriends, one night stands are all off limits.  And, should your man protest, just bat your eyes coyly and say, "Oh, honey, I'd love to, but I'm exercising personal responsibility."  My guess, it would take about a month before contraceptives are funded 100%.
See, when we talk about "personal responsibility" in the context of contraception, we are talking about women having sex.  We frame the conversation as though every woman who dares take the Pill or get fitted for an IUD is one of those slutty slutty mcslutty whores who just want to sleep around scot free.  Not like the pure virgins or matrons who have earned our respect.
Except--those sperm cells don't differentiate between the squeaky clean pure married ladies we hold up as exemplars of womanhood and everyone else.  A woman's ovaries don't stop working just because she had those 2.8 kids the statisticians discuss.  Any woman who has any intercourse with any man--ring on her finger or not--can find herself having more children than she can support.  And suddenly, we sneer in our contempt, "If you can't feed 'em, don't breed 'em."
So, we take steps to avoid it, while still participating in sex acts that enhance relationships for 99% of us (about 1% of the population identifies as asexual).   We exercise our "personal responsibility" by using contraceptives.  The end result is fewer pregnancies, fewer families in poverty, and--surprise! fewer abortions.
Women are already trapped in a horrible place when it comes to sex.  We are expected to provide it on demand to our spouses (spousal rape may be illegal, but good luck having a prosecutor actually take you seriously), but when we get pregnant as a result, we have to bear an enormous strain on our bodies.  We lose jobs.  We could lose healthcare.  We have the added burden of another mouth to feed--and expected to do it as valuable legal protections for women, access to healthcare, and our social safety net are rapidly dwindling.  The only low-cost provider of pre-natal services in some areas is Planned Parenthood--which may lose access to Medicaid reimbursement for care under our current administration.  So, when we try to utilize the insurance we pay into (and all taxpayers pay into Medicaid in some form or other) to prevent a(nother) pregnancy, we are shut down with "It's not my job to pay for your birth control!  Why don't you keep your legs closed?"
Fine.  Challenge accepted.  We stop putting out until the conversation changes.  Then maybe our society won't be so quick to yell about "personal responsibility."