Today House Republicans led by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) voted to delay the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. In case you haven’t been keeping track, this is the House GOP’s 50th vote to dismantle Obamacare.
In a speech last week at a DNC event, President Obama joked,
“You know what they say: 50th time is the charm. Maybe when you hit your 50th repeal vote, you will win a prize. Maybe if you buy 50 repeal votes, you get one free.”
On Monday, in the wake of Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to veto her state’s anti-gay “freedom to discriminate” bill, People For the American Way president Michael Keegan wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed that we are continually asked to believe the “new, no-nonsense Republican Party” has finally taken to heart the “dangers of embracing extremism.” However, he writes:
“…there seems to be a Grand Canyon-like gap between what everyone knows the Republican Party should do and what they actually do. Time after time, we see that they just can't help themselves. We all know the embarrassing, crazy uncle who shows up at the family reunion. It seems like all of those crazy uncles have now banded together to control the Republican Party.”
And with their 50th vote to undermine Obamacare, it seems pretty clear that the Republican Party isn’t going to be able to rein in those crazy uncles anytime soon.
I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend. The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.
The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.
There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.
At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:
We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.
After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.
A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts. In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.
Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.
“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”
Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition. In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage. Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”
Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America. Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.”
While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.
At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.
A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making. “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”
Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools. Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.
In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism. She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.
Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”
There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….
She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.
So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”
….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.
Weighing into one of the most watched Senate races this election cycle, Bill Clinton spoke at a campaign event in Louisville on Tuesday putting his political weight behind Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Clinton took the opportunity to call out Republican obstruction in government, alluding to the “dumb way” the GOP has tried to run the country:
In the end that’s really what Alison is telling you: ‘Send me to Washington and I’ll do something that makes sense and if there’s a problem with it, I’ll fix it.’ And the other … choice is to just pout if … your party is not in the White House, and make as many problems as you can, stop anything good from happening, and if you can’t stop it at least badmouth it. And then … when there’s a problem do everything you can to make sure the problem is never fixed. … It’s a dumb way to run a country.
Speaking before Clinton, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth held the Minority Leader accountable for his horrible record of big money in politics, putting it pithily:
[He] is the one who says money is speech. If you have money, he’ll listen.
On Wednesday, the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, PFAW’s Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks joined Thom Hartmann on The Big Picture to discuss how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has helped promote Stand Your Ground laws in states across the country.
Brooks highlighted how the secretive organization fueled by wealthy right-wing donors and corporations pushes legislation that hurts real people:
PFAW’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” included a section titled, “The Pernicious Private Prison Industry.” We reported that across the country, private prisons were often violent, poorly run facilities that put prisoners, employees and communities at risk even while failing to deliver on promised savings to taxpayers. But state legislators, encouraged by ALEC and by private prison interests’ lobbying and campaign expenditures, continued to turn prisons over to private corporations, often with contract provisions that acted as incentives for mass incarceration.
A new story in Politico Magazine, “The Private Prison Racket” comes to the same conclusions. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” says author Matt Stroud. “So why do we keep giving them our business?”
The Politico story slams “bed mandates” – guarantees given by states to private companies to keep prisons full. Contracts like that build in incentives for governments to lock people up – and punish states financially when they try to reduce prison populations.
Politicians are taking notice. Last month, In the Public Interest reported that reality has turned the tide against private prisons: “Coast-to-coast, governments are realizing that outsourcing corrections to for-profit corporations is a bad deal for taxpayers, and for public safety.” The dispatch cited problems with private prisons in states as diverse as Arizona, Vermont, Texas, Florida, and Idaho, where Gov. Butch Otter, a “small government” conservative, announced last month that the state would take control of the Idaho Correctional Center back from private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America due to rampant violence, understaffing, gang activity, and contract fraud.
But the huge private prison industry is not going away anytime soon. As In the Public Interest notes:
All of this momentum does not suggest the imminent death of the for-profit prison industry. Some states, including California and West Virginia, are currently gearing up to send millions more to these companies. But the past year has been a watershed moment, and we are heading in the right direction. In light of these developments, these states would be wise to look to sentencing reform to reduce populations, rather than signing reckless outsourcing contracts.
The arguments against private prisons are myriad and compelling. Promised savings end up as increased costs. Lockup quotas force taxpayers to guarantee profits for prison companies through lock up quotas hidden in contracts. They incentivize mass incarceration while discouraging sentencing reform in an era when crime rates are plummeting.
But more than anything else, the reality of the disastrous private prison experiment has turned the public against the industry.
At a standing-room-only event at the National Press Club today, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice launched a new campaign designed to shift the public conversation about religion and sexuality.
An underlying premise for the It’s Time campaign is that the Religious Right has dominated that conversation and as a result, “an unprecedented number of bills are being proposed – and far too many are passing – that attempt to write one narrow-minded, dangerous religious view of abortion and sexuality into law.”
The campaign seeks to enlist people of faith – the majority of whom support access to contraception, sexuality education, and reproductive healthcare including abortion – and give them tools for engaging in respectful conversation with friends, families, religious congregations, and communities. Speakers at today’s launch included religious leaders, healthcare advisors, and advocates.
“We all need to be reminded that many, many people of deep faith across this country are pro-faith, pro-family and pro-choice,” said Rev. Alethea Smith-Withers, RCRC board chair. LaTasha Mayes, executive director of New Voices Pittsburgh, said polling indicates that 76 percent of African Americans who attend religious services weekly agree that abortion should be legal and safe.
Dr. Willie J. Parker, a Chicago physician who provides abortion care, said that he is “witness to the torment” of patients who are told when they make the decision to have an abortion “that doing so is mutually exclusive with the faith identity that they hold.” Said Parker, “I believe a compassionate, explicit and assertive voice within the faith community….sets at liberty those who are held captive by religious dogma.”
Another speaker, Aimee Thorne-Thompson of Advocates for Youth, described herself as a secular person who understands that religion has been used as a tool of oppression but can also be a tool for justice. “I want young people to know that they can bring their whole selves to these conversations and their activism, and that includes their sexuality and their faith, if they have it.”
RCRC President Harry Knox, said, “For us, the call to reproductive justice is a moral one, grounded in centuries of spiritual teachings and sacred texts.” Knox recently wrote:
“Religious leaders, in particular, must articulate the simple fact that while people of faith vary widely in their beliefs about when and whether ending a pregnancy is morally acceptable, a vast majority of the American people believe that decisions about pregnancy should be made by a woman, in consultation with her partner and physician, and perhaps her clergyperson – not by the government.”
According to Knox, the It’s Time campaign will be at the Supreme Court in March as the Hobby Lobby case is heard; in Texas in April to nurture a new clergy network committed to reproductive justice; in Tennessee in May to teach people how to “lead faithfully at the epicenter of a ballot initiative fight”; and around the country to help people shape public discourse and be heard at the voting booth.
Today marks the 41st anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision protecting every woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Today, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, seven in ten people support Roe v. Wade.
A poll conducted by NBC News and Wall Street Journal last year found that a record number of respondents supported a woman’s right to choose in all or most circumstances.
This support is especially important in light of the work conservative activists continue to carry out in an attempt to undermine women’s health and autonomy. As noted in our 2013 report, Chipping Away at Choice, from mandatory waiting periods to “TRAP” laws, the ability for women to access safe and legal abortions is under attack. People For the American Way will continue to work with our allies in protecting women’s right to choose.
Last Monday, Right Wing Watch reported on an upcoming far-right rally, “Operation American Spring,” calling for the ousting of President Obama. Rally organizer Harry Riley predicts that “millions of Americans will participate” in this mission to “bring down the existing leadership.”
On Friday, PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney joined Rev. Al Sharpton on Politics Nation to discuss these fringe plans to overthrow President Obama and what it means when the rhetoric of far right activists creeps into the language of GOP elected officials:
On a recent national activist teleconference, pollster Geoff Garin of Hart Research Associates told PFAW supporters that 2014 could see challenging mid-year elections for progressives. Garin said 2013’s rollout difficulties with the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party obstructionism, and sliding poll numbers for President Obama stand out in voters’ minds. But he also highlighted opportunities for change, including the push to unseat GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Tea Party Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Following trends like Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial win in Virginia, Garin observed that Democrat Michelle Nunn is well positioned to win in Georgia. Garin and PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager both noted that as Republicans continue to move further to the right, Democrats who represent a new, positive direction stand to pick up seats in swing areas because of voters’ frustration with obstructionism and division.
You can listen to the audio of the teleconference here:
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.
In Pryor’s new ad, he doesn’t talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”
The centrality of faith in Pryor’s life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: “The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently.” But I don’t see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring’s attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor’s Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response “bizarre and offensive.”
The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for “basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to Gold Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth.” But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor’s “I’m not ashamed” line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the Religious Right’s charge that Christianity is under attack in America.
Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012 which starts with very similar “I’m not ashamed” language but then gets “much more vulgar.”
A more recent example of the “a lot worse” school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.
Broun’s remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of “this mistaken idea that we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government.” (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)
Broun calls the Bible “the basis of our nation,” and says the fact that we aren’t running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic. The founding fathers, he says, were “Bible-believing Christians” who believed that “every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God’s inerrant word. That’s what I believe in. That’s what we should all believe in.”
This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is “from the pit of hell” and that the Bible is a “manufacturer’s handbook” that “teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society,” as well as our lives as individuals. “That’s the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C.”
There are important distinctions between Pryor’s ad and Broun’s speeches. It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. These “rules of the road” are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the 12 Rules:
Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.
Pryor’s ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.
In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other Religious Right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter. Broun’s insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, “It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy.” In contrast, Pryor’s ad explicitly says that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.
A Religious Right critic of Pryor’s ad broke another of PFAW Foundation’s rules: “Religion should not be used as a political club.” As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was “outraged” by Pryor’s ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible “the furthest thing from the truth” because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn’t denigrate the sincerity of Pryor’s faith because he disagrees.
Still, Pryor’s ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate. It can come across as saying, “vote for me because I’m a Christian,” a message that fails to respect America’s constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, “vote for me because I’m the right kind of Christian.” Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office.
With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there’s little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.