This is a blog of populist and liberal information and ideas, advancing the cause of truth and justice while fighting the ugly tyranny of right-wing oppression in Oklahoma and its surrounding environs.

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.

Unstated Intent

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Despite what some of its supporters claim, Oklahoma’s latest disingenuous anti-abortion law is about doing away with the procedure, not about ensuring the safety of women.

The anti-abortion ideologues here have obviously believed through the years that it’s okay to use deception and rhetorical subterfuge in their legislative strategy because of the supposed religious sanctity of their cause, but one has to question the moral validity of a movement that dare not speak its name.

Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed into law Senate Bill 1848, which basically requires that abortion-clinic physicians must have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of their facility. The bill actually states that one of the reasons for the new requirement is if “hospitalization of . . . a child born alive is necessary.”

State Rep. Randy Grau, an Edmond Republican and one of the sponsors of the bill, claims the bill is about the safety of women who have abortions, according to a media report. Let’s be clear that those who voted for the bill probably could care less about anyone seeking an abortion in the first place. This is about shutting down abortion clinics.

Even if we were to grant Grau a position of sincerity, here’s the simple logic that undercuts his logic: If an emergency situation arose during an abortion, an event that is extremely rare, the patient would be admitted to the closest hospital anyway by one of the hospital’s physicians.

The Oklahoma Medical Association opposed the bill, but on a limited basis, arguing “. . . we oppose legislation or regulations that would implement a standard of care or override a physician’s medical judgment.” That’s fine, but what about the rights of women who choose to have a legal and safe abortion? Shutting down abortion clinics directly affects the health of women here.

Tamya Cox, an attorney with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said two abortion facilities, one each in Oklahoma City and Norman, could be forced to close under the new requirements, according to an article in the Tulsa World. Another abortion facility in Tulsa is in compliance with the new bill, she said.

Cox said it can be difficult for doctors who perform abortions to get hospital admitting privileges because of the potential for negative publicity. Some hospitals also have religious affiliations that might compel them to refuse admitting privileges to physicians who regularly perform abortions.

The bill is part of the latest legislative strategy by the anti-abortion movement, which has already passed similar bills in four states, including Texas.

All these bills primarily impact low-income women who might not be able to afford to travel when seeking an abortion. This could lead to non-medically supervised abortions, which would, indeed, threaten women’s health and safety. Consequently, the bill could very well result in just the opposite of its stated intent.

Let’s hope the bill is challenged on constitutional grounds and is quickly discarded by the courts as another legislative error.

It’s easy for people to check out of the abortion debate because it’s so endless, but it really does impact all women. If religious fundamentalists are allowed to deny women basic rights to their own bodies through idealizing and sanctifying reproductive sexuality, then what else is next? Will they stop at abortion, at birth control? What other oppressive social controls will they deploy to prohibit women from making decisions about their own health, their own bodies?

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