from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Swords into School Desks 

s the title of a new piece by the irreplaceable Mollie Ivins, the entirety of which you can read here. As you neighborhood educational blogger pest, I thought I would devote a diary to exploring what she offers. As usual, I will offer some selected quotes, and probably far too much of my own commentary.

WARNINGS BEFORE YOU START: (1) I consider Ivins essential reading, and am surprised that her work is not feature by other bloggers far more often than it is. After al, anyone who survived attending San Jacinto Junior High with the President needs to be given every benefit of the doubt. (2) I have o students until next Monday, as we broke yesterday afternoon. That makes me depressed (as I always am when I am not teaching - see this story at MyLeftWing that addresses it. (3) As always, I insist that we not take our eyes off the issue of education, not only because it is important in itself and because I am a teacher, but because it represents the very future of our democracy. Finally, (4) it will not end as you might expect.

Continue reading at your own risk.

After calling things such as nominations to the Supreme Court and indictments at the White House “mundane” and declaring her desire to focus less on what is wrong and more on possible fixes, Ivins offers the following:
Here's a starter: I would like America to be a country where we spend more money on educating people than we do on the military.

Now, for someone like me that is guaranteed to grab my attention, even if I think it is highly unlikely we could ever come close to reversing the current ratio. If memory serves, not including the supplementals for Iraq, the Federal expenditures on Defense are in excess of 400 billion, while those for education (not including food stamps, which come from the Agriculture budget) are less than 400 million. Since that represents between 7 and 8 % of the total expenditure on K-12 PUBLIC education, that means the total expenditure for public education is less than 6 billion per annum.

Ivins notes that the occasion for her writing this particular column was hearing Ray Suarez on PBS suggest that we make education our top national priority:
He suggests that this would have so many unexpected side effects -- ranging from science to race relations -- that it would effectively be a revolution.

She then attempts to calculate the cost of our military, and uses a figure, including Iraq, substantially higher than the one I did,one in excess of 50-00 billion, describing it as 52% of the discretionary budget, and offers (which I will not repeat - go read the article) an explanation of what she means by discretionary.

Her next brief paragraph also got my attention:
The group Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, whose purpose is to educate the public on how the federal government spends our money and what priorities are, suggests cutting 15 percent from the military budget and redirecting it.

I had two immediate reactions. First, these business leaders clearly are not from companies in what Eisenhower described as the millitary-industrial complex: there will be no execs from Halliburton or General Dynamics to be sure. Second, using her figure of 500 billion, that would represent a poll of 75 billion per year, which is more than the Federal government currently spends on all social related programs that are not entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

I immediately decided I needed to take a look at this group, whose webpage is here. My first reaction is that they probably would not carry much weight in the broader business community or in the MSM as important business leaders: the first names I encountered were Ben Cohen and Stansfield Turner. But when I looked further I thought Maybe, just maybe, they cold represent the start of a process, since their description of key people included
Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities was formed in 1998 because top American businesspeople believe that the federal government's spending priorities are undermining our national security. Advised by retired admirals and generals, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities' 650 members include the present or former CEOs of Bell Industries, Black Entertainment Television, Goldman Sachs, Men's Warehouse, and Phillips Van Heusen - as well as Ted Turner and Paul Newman.
and their military advisory committee was listed as having
decades of experience analyzing defense requirements.  They have concluded that this shift can take place while still maintaining the world's strongest military, sufficient to meet America's vital interests. The MAC includes: Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan (USN, ret) former commander of the North Atlantic Fleet; former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb (under President Reagan); Admiral Stansfield Turner (USM, ret.) who served as CIA Director, and others.

I decided this was worth a further look. So let’s return to Ivins. She is going to rely heavily upon their research, especially that of Larry Kolb. But her own words as usual carry great impact.

After noting that we are so strong that even with some cuts it is impossible to believe that anyone could conceivably represent a military threat to this country, she offers some specific examples. Let’s give a snippet of the text:
Anyone who has watched the poor National Guard getting called back to Iraq again and again can figure out that quite a bit of this money is not being well spent.

Just for starters, is there anyone -- anyone -- who thinks we need more than 1,000 nuclear warheads in order to have a credible nuclear deterrent at this time? By cutting back to 1,000, we can save $13 billion right there.

Another $26 billion would be saved by scaling back or stopping the research, development and construction of weapons that are useless in dealing with modern threats. Many of these, such as the F/A-22 fighter jet and the Virginia-class submarine, were designed to fight the defunct Soviet Union. All of this is according to Lawrence Korb, whose credentials are endless -- senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, former vice president of Raytheon, etc.

The $26 billion does not include the old Star Wars program, now called missile defense, which could be cut back to basic research for a savings of $7 billion.

Ivins uses a figure of only 60 billion for sake of discussion (which would be 12% of the total she previously cited). She says Korb says that much could be cut without damaging military readiness. She argues that any think tank - right or left - cut come up with similar amounts with very little effort.

Let me offer the conclusion of her article before I embark on my own reflections.
OK, so we could shift $60 billion into education without even breathing hard. How would we continue toward a goal of putting more into education than into stuff to kill people? For starters, we could try having fewer enemies in the world. Then we wouldn't need so many ways to kill them, eh? And how do we get there?

Nothing simple about this effort -- anyone who thinks international relations and diplomacy are simple, straightforward subjects has not been paying attention. This how-do-we-fix-it series is a conversation, not a lecture, and all suggestions are welcome. You can send suggestions to me at ideasformolly@creators.com.

It is interesting that Ivins is encouraging readers to offer her suggestions. This would provide yet another opportunity to expand our conversations about education. Regular readers know that I have participated in such a discussion with Tom Vilsack, Governor of Iowa, both at his blog and at dailykos. There is a similar opportunity to offer suggestions offered by SEIU (one that covers all of the progressive agenda) at their site Since Sliced Bread, to which Vilsack provides a link. And at which you could win big bucks -- so far as I post 11,724 ideas have been posted in an attempt to win $100,000.

It is now time for the thoughts of teacherken. You man, if you wish, stop reading now and either go on to something else, or offer your comments only with respect to what Ivins wrote. I hope you will continue reading for another few minutes, because I think my words may be of some value.

In most of the discussions about education and what can be done to improve it we have been far too limited in our discussions because of cost. Remember that most education is funded by property taxes and some degree of state aid. That has a tendency to favor wealthier jurisdictions, and in general we have seen more effective schools in places like wealthier suburbs. I will not here recapitulate all the arguments about how money is spent or whether spending more does or dos not make a difference (although far too often the only way that is measured is by test scores). The issue of funding is always a limitation of what can be done about our schools. This has, for example, been an ongoing issue in Texas, where the State Supreme Court just ordered replacement of the state’s unconstitutional funding scheme before the start of the next school year, although it still did not require the lege (as ivins calls it) to come up with the tax increases necessary to truly fund education -- you can read about this here in the Dallas Morning News. Those who have followed the issue of school funding nationally may remember that one of the battles Howard Dean fought was to equalize school funding in Vermont -- it was that which first focused my attention on him.

When Bush first proposed NCLB, I participated in a study where several grad students in a course at George Washington interviewed key educational leaders around the country about the proposal. One point we heard repetitively is that one of the most significant things the Federal government could do to improve public education is fully fund its promised share (40%) of the costs imposed by the legislation on Special Education. This would remove major burdens from local districts and free up those funds for other purposes. The Federal government has never even met HALF of its promised share, even as the mandates have stayed in place, mandates that - unlike those of testing - are considered binding even if the state or district receives no other Federal funds, because these are considered issues of civil rights. I do not immediately know what the cost of doing this is, but I do know where the burden lifted would have the greatest effect, and that is in inner city districts with high percentages of students identified as special education, precisely those districts about which we have the greatest concern, and at whose test scores critics of public education most often point.

I also immediately think of all the wonderful programs funding for which this administration has wanted to eliminate. Back on July 19th I wrote bout how the Feds wanted to slash funding for gifted education.

Since people became aware of Lakoff, we have seen many discussion on the subject of framing. In a sense, this piece by Ivins falls in that category - how do we frame the issue of education. But actually it is something far more fundamental. And it represents a challenge to me.

I often argue that before we can truly address educational issues in this country, we need to have a serious discussion about educational philosophy -- unless we can agree on the purpose of school, we cannot seriously decide on priorities and structure. I still think that’s true.

But Ivins made me realize that there is a question that first must be addressed. It is so basic, and yet we so often ignore it in our political discourse.

What kind of nation and society do we want? Attempting to address ANY issue without first addressing this is in a sense worrying about a dripping faucet in the 9th Ward of New Orleans while ignoring the failure of the levees on the Industrial anal (so it is not a great comparison, sorry).

I believe that a serious discussion of the kind of nation we should be inevitably favors the liberal / progressive point of view. But that is not why I would like to see such a discussion.

Those in business and non-profit institutions know the importance of a mission statement. It is what should guide all of our decisions. It should be how we assign priorities.

We have a mission statement, actually several, as a political entity. These are the Declaration and the Preamble. We may argue about how they should be interpreted (which is why who sits on the Supreme Court is so critical, and why it is valid to seriously question how a person nominated as a Justice might interpret and rule).

We cannot make meaningful decisions about how we allocate resources unless we can see them in a far greater context than that which we usually apply.

I would love to see far less devoted to defense and weapons systems, and far more to the development of our national and our culture. My mind explodes at the possibilities of what could be done with just a fraction of the 60 billion about which Ivins and Korb talk - spend 10% of that on education, including post-secondary education, and the possibilities blow my mind -- interest-free loans for post-secondary education, or basic wireless computers for every student, or fully (not just the 40% share) funding of mandated special education needs (with a requirement that freed up funds be spent on classroom needs) .. I could go on and on.

But now i realize that as important as education is as an issue in my political decision making process, I now want something more. I want a serious discussion, NOW, about what kind of nation we will be. I want to hear a sweeping vision of where we as a nation and a society can go. And I want the discussion to include our relationships with the rest of the world.

Education will be a key component of that discussion. Thus I do not worry that my key issue will be lost in the broader discussion, anymore than I think my wife’s key issue of the environment would be ignored.

We cannot survive as a society and a democratic republic if we continue to address things only on a piecemeal basis. Madison may heave felt (in Federalist 10) that the multiplicity of faction would serve to prevent any one faction from becoming too powerful and thus hostile to the interest of the nation at large. Whether the current influence of certain groups disproves his thesis is arguable. What is not arguable is that we are a nation and a society at grave risk. We need to address education, we need to fund it more completely and more equitably. But unless we address the larger issue of the kind of society we wish to be, we could win the battle on education and still lose the larger - and more important - war.

I have written enough for one diary. I will continue to focus on education when I blog. But i now realize that I must place my arguments and pleadings in a far broader context. And now, besides looking for political leaders who understand education, I desperately seek those willing to lead this nation in the broader discussion so necessary to our future.

What do you think?

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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