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Personal Intrusion

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A new law requiring a counseling class for divorcing couples with children is yet another unnecessary conservative-backed personal intrusion into people’s lives here.

The main purpose of the law seems to be to remind divorcing parents that they are about to commit an atrocious and horrible act that’s sure to hurt their children and then to push the couple to reconcile for their sake. The bill seems based on the logic that people should stay in lousy marriages for the sake of their children. Wasn’t that myth destroyed a long time ago?

Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law this week House Bill 2249, which requires parents divorcing on the grounds of incompatibility take a class that, among other things, focuses on “short-term and longitudinal effects of divorce on child well-being” and “reconciliation as an optional outcome.”

In other words, the class will undoubtedly try to shame a divorcing couple over how they are supposedly hurting their children and then try to get them back together. Here are some questions: What if the couple doesn’t want to even talk about reconciliation? What if only one of the spouses wants to talk about reconciliation, and he/she uses the class as a way to harass the other spouse? (This will surely happen.) What if the couple has been separated for a long time and the children are already adjusted?

Let me throw out a suggestion: People who stay in terrible marriages for the sake of children often have as many anxieties and regrets as people who divorce and establish new blended families. I don’t have any statistical evidence offhand that this is the case, but growing up in a household war zone or in a home without expressions of love and compassion takes it own little nasty toll on children.

I will grant that the new law might seem innocuous and benign to some people. Pay for and complete the class and go about the business of getting a divorce. No big deal, right? But this class could create even more emotional tension between couples during a time period of great stress and anxiety. It presupposes that reconciliation is the answer.

For a long time, Oklahoma has had one of the highest divorce rates in the country, providing the fuel for the social-conservatives who want to engineer our lives with their own narrow worldview abut the sanctity of marriage. Oklahoma is a deeply, right-wing religious state and thus many of our children here grow up with false, idealistic ideas and expectations about marriage and having children. They are taught to find a “soul mate,” not a friend, a “spiritual family leader,” not a partner, “a wife to honor,” not a confidante. A child is a “blessing,” not a responsibility. It’s all coated in religious symbolism and made manifest by the grand wedding spectacle. It has very little to do with the day-to-day life of living with someone and raising children together.

Moreover, children in Oklahoma can get legally married at 16 with their parents’ consent, but we still absurdly deny same-sex couples who have been in stable relationships for years any opportunity at all to legally sanction their partnership, a prohibition that will hopefully change in the near future because of federal court rulings.

We need to one day finally and completely remove the stigma of divorce here and mandate more realistic sex and home-life/home-economics education classes—including discussions about different sexual orientations—in our public schools. That would do far more to lower our divorce rate than haranguing stressed out couples about reconciling.

Educational Darkness

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The contemporary avalanche of high-stakes testing and other assessment procedures in education is constructed upon faulty philosophical premises, which can be detrimental and harmful to students and teachers.

In medicine, the adage goes, “First, do no harm.” That should apply to education as well. What if, for example, a particular high-stakes test is poorly constructed and penalizes students for giving the right answer? What if a teacher must teach the “untruth” in order to keep her job? The implications of these errors for our society are enormous.

We must grant the possibility that this country’s obsessive efforts to quantify student achievement, along with the conservative attack on the education establishment in general, is the real crisis in education today.

Let me be clear that the deployment of high-stakes testing in our schools has been both a Democratic and Republican conquest, and I mean the word conquest as in a political attack upon and then the occupation of schools. For example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, serving under President Barack Obama, has been a major battlefield general directing the current conquest.

I’m willing to concede there are political leaders that truly believe that high-stakes testing, which is testing in schools that can penalize teachers and students for low scores, is a method to boost achievement. Certainly, though, at this juncture anyone truly concerned with education would concede the high-stakes testing movement has created systems and procedures fraught with error.

The overall attack on the public education establishment, however, is ultimately a conservative ploy, which has used high-stakes testing in order to transfer public assets, primarily tax dollars, to private companies in order to respond to the fake crisis created by low test scores.

All this manifested itself recently in Oklahoma after some schools claimed that recent test scores for fifth- and eighth-graders were probably wrong in many cases. CTB/McGraw-Hill gave the tests. For example, the schools complained, according to a media report, that some students received lower scores for plagiarism, when, in fact they were merely citing sources.

Here’s the Tulsa World story about the issue. I won’t rehash all the complaints, all of which seem quite legitimate.

I have two points:

(1) As a longtime college professor here, I think students in our public schools should learn how to cite and document sources in papers and show evidence for their arguments. When students enter college, they should know these basic concepts and should be ready to learn and then apply different style and documentation guidelines in their research papers. If teachers must warn students as they approach a high-stakes test not to back up their arguments or interpretations with verifiable evidence, then there’s a real problem. It means the system is harming students, teaching them the wrong thing and implanting in them a basic untruthful idea.

(2) Why is a private company administering the test in the first place? It only makes sense that a for-profit company would align itself with those who want to use the crisis created by high-stakes testing as a way to transfer taxpayer money to the private sector. I’m not arguing that CTB/McGraw-Hill has an intentionally skewed test, but the overall conservative effort to privatize education is more likely in their financial interests than not.

Not many people are against basic standardized tests or measurements in public schools. But those tests and measurements should be created within the public school system itself and administered by the system itself. Any major action, such as holding a student back a grade or closing a school, should be done holistically and with the aim of really addressing problems, not as an excuse for more privatization, which can extend accessibility prejudices.

Education in this country and Oklahoma has become a political battleground that creates real casualties among students and teachers, and there has been a surge in misguided administrative oversight that defies logic and creates incompetence. Yet still teachers help students to learn in this new educational darkness.

More Pension Cuts Next Year?

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The only question now is what’s next when it comes to cutting state pension plans in Oklahoma?

Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law a bill that ends pensions for new state employees under the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System (OPERs), moving new hires into 401(k)-styled plans that don’t offer a guaranteed benefit.

The bill, pushed by top conservative leaders, such as Fallin and Oklahoma Treasurer Ken Miller, is only the first step in the deliberate act of gutting pension systems for state employees, including teachers. Conservatives have deployed the usual rhetoric of “reform” in their attack, and state employees let it happen without too much protest. What chance did they have to stop it, anyway?

Ostensibly, the reason for going to a defined-contribution plan—new employees will pay at least 3 percent into it and the state matches up to 7 percent—is that OPERS faces unfunded liabilities. But at least one report indicates it’s one of the top performing retirement systems in the state. If a decently funded retirement system covering 50,000 employees and 30,000 retirees gets on the chopping block, what’s going to happen with the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS), which is in worse financial shape than OPERS? That system will probably be targeted next for “reform.”

Lost in all the conservative self-congratulatory and grandiose statements after the bill was passed and then signed into law were these two points: (1) State lawmakers and other leaders have failed miserably through the years to fully fund the retirement systems here for state employees, and (2) if no new employees are paying into the old defined-benefit system how can it possibly remain solvent. Conservatives will force the crisis to take away pensions. It’s really that simple.

Perhaps, the most incredulous argument has been made by the editorial page of The Oklahoman, which whines that because most employees at private companies have defined-contribution plans or no plans at all, then it only follows that government employees should join them in this country’s current great race to the bottom precipitated by growing income inequality. The rich, after all, need their tax cuts and loopholes so the rest of us can have a lousy retirement or no retirement at all.

Speaking of the rich, lawmakers this session also made permanent gross production tax cuts for the oil and gas industry, which at one time used to pay 7 percent on wells. Now the tax rate will be 2 percent for the first three years of a new well and then 7 percent after that. The tax cut bill was practically written by rich oil and gas executives. The oil and gas industry is experiencing a mini-boom here and its earnings are up so tax cuts are needed. Get it? That’s what passes for responsible governance in this place.

Republicans here bank on the fact that not enough people will see through their strategy or even care, and as long as Barack Obama remains president, they will remain in complete control of the government here. Taking away people’s retirement security while giving unneeded tax cuts to the oil and gas industry tells Oklahoma’s current political story all too well.

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