Can we ever have an intelligent and deeper discussion about this issue of people who make poor lifestyle choices related to their health here in Oklahoma?
For years, The Oklahoman editorial page has taken the smug monolithic position that, say, anyone who smokes or drinks too much or eats too much or does hard drugs, such as methamphetamine, is simply making a bad decision. No amount of health insurance or medical access, so the reasoning goes, really matters. Bad choices are simply bad choices. People could choose differently. Case closed.
The newspaper has used this reductionist argument, of course, to oppose the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and virtually any government expansion of health care coverage or access. On Sunday, The Oklahoman editorial page whines yet again:
We would add that a long-existing body of evidence suggests that healthy lifestyles increase life expectancy and that no level of insurance coverage can overcome the effects of smoking, obesity and the substance abuse problems that Oklahoma grapples with continuously.
The editorial makes this claim in response to a new study that the mortality rate has dropped in Massachusetts as more and more people have been able to get health insurance there. Parsing the study and omitting basic information about socio-economic issues, education and health in Oklahoma, the editorial takes its rigid position as its own compliance with a conservative ideology that rejects humane, responsible action. It’s as if the poverty and the low college education rate and the high drug addiction rate in the state doesn’t affect anyone but those held captive by their own “bad choices.” That’s an error. It's illogical.
Let’s be clear that all of us, whether we make bad choices or not, whatever our income level, are affected by Oklahoma’s stark socio-economic failures and its government’s stubborn refusal to fund education at anything close to an adequate level. The state’s governing apparatus, and this includes Democrats in the past, creates its own crisis and washes it away with the bad-choice trope.
Tax dollars go to prisons instead of schools. Drug addiction often leads to more extreme criminal behavior. Poverty is all around us, seen in Oklahoma City’s urban plight or the dilapidation of main street in small towns. Our state’s low graduation rate means fewer cultural opportunities for all of us. Perhaps the very rich can escape from the stultifying effects of the wrongly conceived bad-choice argument, but 99 percent of us simply endure the depressing spectacle.
People make bad health decisions for a variety of reasons. They do drugs to escape because they lack real opportunities in their lives in a society that privileges the wealthy. They become overweight because they can only afford foods that lead to obesity. They don’t have the money to afford regular medical checkups so they lack crucial information about their bodies. They develop mental illness because of the personal psychological chaos created by long-term poverty. Some are undereducated because our schools lack appropriate funding and can’t give enough individual attention to at-risk students.
Will universal medical access—and, in particular, the expansion of Medicaid here in Oklahoma—solve all the problems? Of course not, but it’s the crucial starting point in any holistic strategy to improve the quality of life here. It’s much easier to make good choices when you’re healthy and knowledgeable about your body. The bad-choice argument is simply a way to marginalize people and enable conservatives, even many right-wing religious folks, to shrug off their responsibilities in society. Our churches here are filled with people who make pious gestures towards the poor, but in real-life the parishioners are overwhelmingly voting for politicians who simplistically view poverty and illness as choices, not as conditions.
State Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi has called the Oklahoma Legislature’s bill allowing more flexibility in dealing with third graders who perform low on a high-stakes reading test “an outrageous step backwards.”
In reality, the bill could be the start of a much-needed movement here in Oklahoma to stop the focus on high-stakes testing in general while refocusing curriculum outside the parameters of failed school reform efforts. Let’s hope that’s the case.
In recent testing, nearly 8,000 third grade Oklahoma students scored low enough to fall under a law that could have technically retained them. The legislature then passed a bill relaxing the retention requirement, allowing for parental input, which Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed. The Republican-dominated legislature responded by overriding Fallin’s veto.
Oklahoma has been increasingly held hostage to a dissipating reform movement that starves its schools of needed funding and resources and then punishes them using low test results as a cudgel. One focus of this movement has been to attack teachers and teacher unions instead of dealing holistically with students’ problems and needs. It also promotes charter schools, which can leave poor-performing students behind. It’s not happenstance that the schools with the lowest scores often have the highest number of impoverished and minority students.
Instead of dealing with the very real socio-economic issues of some children, the reformers want to punish and to show failure rather than to develop larger ways to deal with student performance. Both Barresi and Fallin, who supported the draconian retention law, use sanctimonious rhetoric about helping students, but their rigid stance implies that poverty or hunger or health problems don’t matter when it comes to testing.
Well-known public education advocate and author Diane Ravitch said in an interview last year:
Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today.
Teachers and principals working in inner-city schools with high numbers of impoverished students are the people who know what’s really going on in our educational system. Administrators, such as Barresi, and politicians, such as Fallin, try to engineer the educational system from above with ideology, and it doesn’t work.
High-stakes testing is an error. There’s nothing wrong with testing itself or with appropriate assessment and measurement, but to stake the perceived quality of your entire state school system on one test seems like an act of unstated intentions. If students can’t read at grade level, then let’s go all out and help them. Let’s mobilize, act urgently. Most of us can agree on that. But that means more teachers, smaller class sizes, increased individual attention that may cross over into the realm of family life, health, nutrition and psychology.
The fact the GOP-dominated legislature stepped up to defy fellow Republicans Barresi and Fallin on this issue tells us that the high-stakes testing movement could be coming to an end here in Oklahoma. Could it also be an indicator that Barresi might face reelection problems?
What does an act of bigotry cost these days in Oklahoma?
Well, at least $303,333, which is how much Oklahoma taxpayers will have to fork over to pay legal fees to attorneys that successfully argued that the state’s 2010 edict forbidding the use of Sharia and international law in courts is unconstitutional.
In 2010, Oklahoma voters overwhelming approved a measure placed on the ballot by legislators that “makes courts rely on federal and state law when deciding cases,” which was, of course, already the law in the first place. But it also specifically banned the use of international law and Sharia or Islamic law. The measure passed by an approximate 70 to 30 percent margin.
The problem with the measure was two-fold. State and federal law is already the law of the land so the measure obviously was gratuitous and targeting Sharia law was an obvious specific act of discrimination, violating the rights of Muslims here in Oklahoma.
A federal court eventually ruled the measure unconstitutional after a lawsuit was filed against it. U.S. District Court Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange recently granted a request for the attorney fees for the plaintiffs. The $303,333 figure doesn’t include the amount of money spent by Oklahoma’s attorney general’s office to defend the law. According to a media report, the office declined to give an estimate of the legal costs in defending the discriminatory measure.
Legislators who pushed the bill were never able to cite one Oklahoma court case in which Sharia law was used instead of federal and state law. The measure was simply a glaring and bigoted attack on Islam, sanctioned by nearly 700,000 voters.
One of the unfortunate things about this case is that those who voted against the myopic hate and bigotry will be held just as financially liable as those voters who apparently got some visceral thrill in bashing one of the largest religions on the planet.
Speaking of bigotry, legislators this year are apparently going to decline funding to complete the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. The uncompleted project serves as another symbol of this state’s racist history. Add to that history the anti-President Obama hysteria fueled by conservatives over the course of his presidency, throw in state Rep. Sally Kern’s continuing attacks on gay people and the unflattering picture gets completed. The bottom line is that beneath the state’s sugary welcoming exterior there lurks a cauldron of hatred, paranoia and fear.
All this does matter in terms of the state’s national and international image, whatever the impact, and it lowers the quality of life here for people who believe in diversity and tolerance.