Friday, September 23, 2005

Vouching for the Short Term

In the midst of discussions on ways to move the recovery from Hurricane Katrina forward, the Bush administration has proposed a laundry list of possible programs and changes that they claim would help in returning New Orleans and other affected areas to their previous economic strength. While the intentions of those formulating these proposals are good, and their goal of getting the region back on its feet are admirable, we must be very wary of proposals that push ideological and political positions instead of those that would bring about the most broad-based economic support.

Foremost among these ideological proposals is to provide students with vouchers, allowing them to attend private schools and to have the government pay for their tuition. Aside from clearly conflicting with the separation of church and state, since many of the private schools that would be receiving federal money are religious schools, the proposal is a blatant political ploy by the Bush administration to use the disaster as a way to achieve a goal that it has thus far been unsuccessful at. Since 2001, Congress has repeatedly denied the President the opportunity to get a voucher program passed, much to its credit.

Voucher programs are detrimental to public education and a wide variety of well-respected organizations disagree with the idea on various grounds. The National Parent Teacher Association, the Anti-Defamation League, and the NAACP all stand opposed to school voucher programs.

Hurricane Katrina is a disaster beyond what most of us who do not live in the area can comprehend. Countless houses and schools have been damaged or destroyed, and the basic way of life in southern Louisiana has been changed forever. We need to help the people of the region rebuild their lives, their homes, and their schools. But we cannot neglect the next generation of students and destroy the foundation that public education provides for so many students around the country. School vouchers divert money from public education and put it in the pockets of private, often religious schools, something that goes against one of our basic principles of government.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post published an article on the school vouchers proposal. Here are two quotes from the article:

"It makes it even worse," Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said of the idea that all displaced families could obtain money for private schools. "It is really a tone-deaf response to the crisis. It is a real grab to get an ideological position across that they haven't been able to achieve under normal circumstances."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), ranking Democrat on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said, "Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help that they need."

To read the rest of the article, here is a link to it.

This needs to be exposed as exactly what it is: an attempt by the Bush administration, panicking over extremely low approval ratings, and trying to get an extremely controversial program pushed through Congress in order to claim any victory they can by any means necessary.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Small Steps and Great Leaps

Forty-three years and one week ago today, at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy announced a new national priority for the United States. Here are the highlights from that speech:

"We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds...

"No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man's recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

"Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight...

"There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too...

"Transit satellites are helping our ships at sea to steer a safer course. Tiros satellites have given us unprecedented warnings of hurricanes and storms, and will do the same for forest fires and icebergs.

"We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public...

"To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money ... even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us...

"However, I think we're going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don't think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job."

Today, we are again preparing for a return trip to the moon, as NASA announced its $100 billion, 13-year plan to land a crew of four on the moon for initial explorations of seven days. The numbers are daunting and the costs are high, but I think they are more than worth it. Thirty-three years after the last moon landing, we are long overdue for a return trip to our closest neighbor in space. We sent just half a dozen manned missions to the lunar surface, and only 12 men have left permanent footprints there. This is not even close to the amount of exploration we need to conduct in order to learn everything that we can from the riches of the worlds around us.

Already members of Congress have started to howl at the costs. In a time of natural disasters here, with engagements on this planet, how can we look elsewhere? Some may even see this as a way for President Bush to deflect some of the criticisms that have been leveled against him. I do not see this as correct, however. This is something that we have to do. Discovery is not planned. What we will learn is immeasurable. No one can predict what benefits we can accrue from these missions to the moon and later ones to Mars. The benefits will far outweigh any and all of the costs.

Worlds are waiting for us. It is time that we go explore them. The money has to be spent, the research and planning done, and the ships launched. I cannot state the case any better than President Kennedy did all those years ago. I only hope we can be as successful in the next two decades as we were in the decade after President Kennedy spurred us on to small steps and great leaps a quarter of a million miles from home.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

On Civil Rights, Privacy, and Kowtowing to the Right

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to have his cake and eat it to. On September 6, the California Legislature approved a bill that would formally recognize gay marriage in the state. This is the first time that a legislative body has voted to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry. Schwarzenegger, however, has said that he will veto the bill, leaving California law in its current discriminatory state.

While it is not the right thing to do, Schwarzenegger is well within his rights as governor to veto the bill. The problem arises when it becomes obvious that the veto is not out of any personal opinion by the governor, but instead is clearly a political play to the conservative base of the Republican Party. Schwarzenegger's spokesman has said that the Governor "believes gay couples are entitled to full protection under the law and should not be discriminated against based upon their relationship." What, then, could be the explanation for the impending veto of a bill that would explicitly give homosexual couples the "full protection" that the governor supposedly believes in? Only to kowtow to the conservative right and to ignore the will of the elected legislature.

No matter what happens on the Governor's desk, however, the bill's passage represents a great blow for equal rights for all Americans. This is the first time that gay marriage has been recognized by an elected body instead of by an individual official or by a court. The tide is turning towards equal rights for all, as it did with interracial marriage and the civil rights movement in the last century. Gay marriage is a civil rights issue and a privacy issue. It should be not only allowed, but it should be instead embraced and welcomed. Far from destroying the institution of marriage, as its detractors would argue, gay marriage would strengthen the institution, bringing in a group of devoted couples that are married in every sense of the word but one. It is time to give them that legal standing and recognition. Not just in California and Massachusetts, but in Oklahoma and Texas and Alabama and Mississippi and Washington and across the rest of the nation.

The tide is turning towards what is right. Today, I am proud to stand up and say that I am a citizen of California, where at least the legislature recognizes that we cannot discriminate against so many of our citizens simply based on who they love.