Our health and education— trashed

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George W. scorns the very notion of “commonwealth”

Observing from afar, it seems to me that “Being Bush” must be such a great joy. Reality never seems to intrude, his own lies (including whoppers) seem to be sincerely believed by him, irony never strikes his noggin, hypocrisy seems to be a welcome old friend, doubt never darkens the door of his absolute certainty, and he thinks introspection means taking your car in for a checkup.

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Very few presidents in our nation’s string of 43 have been as brazenly servile to the moneyed elite as has George (only Grant, McKinley, and Harding are competitive). And none have been so blithely obtuse to that servility, couching every single act as being for “the children,” “the single mom,” “the small farmer,” ” the seniors,” or some other humble group that actually gets none of the action.

He reminds me of the fable from which we get the term “naked truth.” It’s about two goddesses, one named Truth and the other named Falsehood, who went skinny-dipping. When Falsehood came out of the water, she put on Truth’s clothes and left. When Truth came out, however, she refused to put on Falsehood’s clothing, preferring to go home naked.

George sees no virtue in naked Truth when Falsehood’s garb is so readily available and such a natural fit, and he reaches for it regularly to cloak his steady undermining of the common good. One quick example: The Patient’s Bill of Rights. Remember this issue? It was hot in the 2000 election, as people were outraged by the abuses they suffered from their HMOs and insurance companies.

Bush grabbed this people’s issue and ran with it, loudly touting his record as Texas governor, including this TV ad on his behalf: “While Washington deadlocked, he delivered a Patient’s Bill of Rights that’s a model for America.” Good stuff. Only… it was totally false. A patient’s rights bill did pass, but he vetoed it at the behest of a major campaign funderwho owned the biggest HMO in the country, Colombia/HCA. Then, against his active opposition, the Texas legislature passed another version, this time by a veto-proof margin. Even then, George refused to sign it, letting it become law without benefit of his gubernatorial imprimatur.

Yet, throughout the 2000 election, he claimed to be Mr. Consumer Man, promising to fight like an enraged bear for a national Patient’s Bill of Rights: “It’s time for our nation to come together and do what’s right for the people.”

Where did Papa Bear go? Four years later, We the People still don’t have that bill of rights. Bush made no fight for it—in fact, he no longer bothers mentioning it. The issue didn’t go away—polls today show that four out of five Americans continue to want such a law. Bush simply lied, feigning interest in the common good as a cloak to get elected, bide his time, let the media move on to other issues…and let his HMO and insurance backers escape scot-free from any public accountability for their abuses. The Bushites are laissez-faire purists striving for their ideal of a corporate-run state. Not only does this mean removing public restrictions on corporate power, but also removing anything and everything that has the word “public” attached to it—from education to Social Security, housing to health care, national forests to our local water supplies. Their extremist anti-government agenda, culled from a sprawling cluster of right-wing corporate-funded think tanks, is so sweeping and is being pursued so energetically that one can imagine them holding pre-dawn pep rallies each day in the White House and every government agency, complete with pom-poms and cheerleaders:

New Deal, Bad Deal! Push it back, Push it back, Waaaaaaaaaay back! Hey, hey, what do you say? Let’s defund government today! Privatize! Cannibalize! Minimalize! Trivialize! Downsize! Vaporize! Georgie, Georgie, He’s The Man! If he can’t do it, No one can!

It’s our “commons” that they’re out to eliminate. The commons are both the common wealth that all of us own together, and the public institutions that we’ve established for our common good. The commonwealth includes such physical assets as our air, airwaves, pure water, the ozone layer, and all of nature, as well as such intangible assets as human rights and liberties. The public institutions of the commons run the gamut from our national treasury to schools, water systems, wildlife preserves, elections, postal service, and parks.

Taking the commons, again

Bush & Company are not merely trying to take us back to the Gilded Age of pre-New Deal, robber-baron corporatism, but also all the way back to the “enclosure movement” of 18th-century England. Back then, with the blessing of parliament, the dukes and barons of the aristocracy suddenly laid claim to the forests, meadows, wild game, and other resources that, up to then, all had shared (and the peasantry had literally relied on for sustenance), enclosing these commons as the private property of the elites.

Three centuries later, here we go again, for Bush has blessed a gold rush by today’s corporate elites to privatize our commons, while also denigrating, defunding, and eliminating our public institutions. As usual, George couches every step down this path as the very opposite of what he’s doing. For example, he says we must strengthen and even “save” Social Security as a public retirement program. How’s he proposing to do that? By converting it to a private program, beginning now with individual retirement accounts run by and for the likes of Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan Chase-Bank One—all of which were caught up in the corporate scandals of the past few years. We’re supposed to count on them?

Or look at Bush’s signature domestic program: education. “Leave no child behind!” he cried, and then deliberately underfunded or axed the budgets of core education programs, while constantly highlighting public-school failures, attacking teachers’ unions (“terrorist” organizations, as his educationsecretary called them), and pushing hard for vouchers to destroy the very concept of public education, turning our children over to corporate and religious instruction. Yet, donning the clothes of Falsehood, he’s still campaigning as “the education president.”

Teaching to the test

Everyone from politicos to CEOs to editorialists pound the pulpit with the same mantra: Education is absolutely key to individual and national success, the very ticket to upward mobility, and the wellspring of renewal for America’s democracy. Yet, for all their talk, these leaders are failing our children abysmally by letting the capacity of public education decline. Instead of doing what every honest analyst says has to be done—investing more public money to produce smaller-sized classes, to retain good teachers, to repair America’s dilapidated school infrastructure, and to make sure every child has the pre-schooling and resources needed so they arrive ready to learn—our so-called leaders resort to quick-fix gimmicks.

The latest and most glaring is George’s “No Child Left Behind” act, based on the simple notion that everything will be superswell if only public schools are held accountable for their success or failure in educating kids. Sure, performance evaluation is good—who opposes that? The glitch, however, is in the gimmick. Accountability, as every parent and teacher has learned to their horror, will now be determined by a standardized, one-size-fits-all series of tests given to children as young as the third grade.

Fail the test, and not only does the child pay a price, but so does the school and the entire school district, including having their funding slashed. The pressure on all—third graders, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents—is so intense that the real-life effect of Bush’s CEO-style accountability is that the education of our kids is being abandoned in favor of “teaching to the test.” The schools drill the test questions and answers into each child day after day, hoping that most of them memorize enough to pass so that Bush won’t yank the school’s funding. Never mind whether students really learn (as in learning how to learn and developing their cognitive ability). Under NCLB, everything they need to know is on the test, isn’t it? It’s what you might call the narrow view of knowledge.

Besides being a pitifully inadequate measure of educational progress, Bush’s testing scheme is being forced on public schools without the funding necessary to administer it. This underfunding is the result of—what else? —another Bush lie. He got Congress (and specifically, Sen. Ted Kennedy) to pass his NCLB Act on the solemn pledge that he would back the law with an agreed-upon level of federal dollars.

Yet, in this year’s Bush budget, after asserting rhetorically that it fulfills his promise of “making sure our children get educated,” he shortchanges his own landmark education initiative by $9.4 billion. Billion! This is on top of the $17 billion that he’d cut from the No Child Left Behind Act in the previous two years. This is why states from Virginia to Utah are in openrebellion, declaring that they will no longer comply with the NCLB law, since it amounts to a cumbersome, questionable, and unfunded federal mandate.

Meanwhile, the education president’s 2005 budget provides just enough money to allow Head Start (only one of the most successful education programs in history) to reach a mere half of all eligible children. Also, the Early Head Start program is budgeted so low that it can serve only five percent of those eligible. That’s a lot of children left behind. Here’s a cute one for you: Shouldn’t schoolchildren be in good classrooms and safe buildings? WELL, OF COURSE, you shout! But they’re not. Our nation’s school buildings are an average of 42 years old; leaking roofs and falling plaster are common; and a third of America’s schools now use trailers as classrooms. The backlogged cost of bringing dilapidated school buildings up to par and providing adequate classrooms for every school child is now calculated by the American Society of Engineers to be $127 billion. Bush’s latest budget freezes funding for school maintenance and new construction. He provides only $54 million—enough to build only six medium-sized schools in a nation of need.

You say America can’t afford $127 billion, Limbaugh breath? That’s a mere one-tenth of the $1.2 TRILLION that Bush intends to give to the richest Americans in tax cuts over the next ten years. Take back only one of those years, and every American kid could learn in a clean, well-lighted, safe classroom.

It’s a fundamental question of whether we’re going to base our nation’s future on the wealthy few…or on the common good.

I’m making moves!

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