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Italicized Shaming

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The Oklahoman recently published a fatuous editorial about the state’s strict third-grade reading test law, arguing with heavy handed italicized emphasis that it and the ensuing fallout has shown thousands of state students can’t read.

Leave aside the editorial's overall sweeping generalization about “thousands” of students, which is hyperbolic. The editorial presents a red-herring argument that minimalizes and distorts the arguments of those people that oppose the law while effectively shaming elementary school students who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, many of which are not related to instruction.

The law mandates that third-grade students be held back if they can’t pass a high-stakes test showing they read at a first-grade or higher level. State law allows some exemptions and alternative tests, but those other tests or the fallout from the law, according to the editorial, also show too many students can’t read.

Here are the two italicized sentences in the editorial that supposedly make the big point that so many of us have just been too stupid so far to understand: “Those students really can’t read! Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.

Note the exclamation point after the first italicized sentence. It’s as if the editorial writer is reveling in the reading struggles of a group of third-grade students, some of whom undoubtedly have learning disabilities or problematic home lives. Some children live in poverty and go hungry on a regular basis!

The editorial also doesn’t fairly address those who oppose the law. I’m one of them. I definitely oppose the third-grade reading test and other high-stake tests in public schools. I know that some students struggle with reading. I know how important reading is as a foundational lifelong learning tool. I know that some students get to the third grade in Oklahoma and other states and can’t read well. But I also know the educational system—not newspaper editorial writers and politicians—should address the reading issue with individual students and parents, and educators do address the issue, which is a holistic one that involves more than just sitting down with a child and sounding out words and reading sentences aloud.

The third-grade reading law is really just a political weapon intentionally designed to show the failure of schools and to justify the push for the privatization of public education. The law is designed so editorial writers at conservative newspapers can gleefully write, “Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.” Pop open the champagne. Why not also write, “Millions of elementary school students in the country live in poverty and dysfunctional homes!” Then open another bottle.

There’s no argument that some at-risk students struggle at school. Why would The Oklahoman and conservative politicians even need to make this point unless it wasn’t politically motivated? The issue is whether we nurture and help develop the students’ capabilities or if we shame them with italicized language and consequently help label and stigmatize them. The second approach, which The Oklahoman apparently endorses, is abusive and only creates more learning blocks for students.

As I’ve argued over and over, the conservative school “reform” movement is deliberately designed to show failure. First and foremost, the school reformers here starve public education of needed funding. Oklahoma, for example, has cut education by 23.6 percent since the 2008 recession, which is more than any other state in the nation.

The reformers then implement high-stakes testing and individual school evaluations that focus on punishment for individual students and educators. Public shaming of students that get held back and educators at schools with meaningless F grades are a major part of the process. This is followed by criticism of teachers’ unions and a push for charter schools and further privatization of our educational system. It’s a long-term effort to dismantle public education in this country, which, if it happened, would essentially lead to the dismantling of our democracy.

Let’s help the kids that can’t read. No one can argue against that. Give them more teachers, the best textbooks and encouragement. But, as a society, we also need to work to eliminate child poverty and provide kids with adequate health care. The problem of poor school performance of individual students is more often than not a holistic one and multi-layered. Tests and punishments only serve to further a conservative political agenda. It has nothing to do with helping students to read.

Republicans Blame Hollywood Elite For Fracking Misconceptions

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Some Senate Republicans have issued what they are calling a “report” on the virtues, righteousness and basic overall goodness of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Fracking, according to the political manifesto, i.e. report, is not only one of the most wonderful things to ever happen for the economy but has also strengthened our country’s geopolitical position in the world. What’s more, so it goes, fracking is also extremely safe and not harmful to the environment. Don’t listen to those Hollywood elites, people. All is well.

Here’s some language from the document just to show how serious it is:

This report highlights the incontrovertible benefits derived from the domestic production of oil and natural gas through the use of hydraulic fracturing. At the same time, it thoroughly discredits the leading claims made by the Obama Administration and their far-left allies who are rooted firmly in the fight against accessing America’s abundant domestic energy. It subsequently undermines the credibility of those who are seeking to devastate America’s energy security, economic opportunity and the livelihoods of families across the country through a coordinated war on hydraulic fracturing and domestic oil and natural gas.

Real scientific stuff, right? Note “far-left allies” and the hyperbolic “coordinated war.” The idea that there’s a real war of any type of oil and gas production in the country is utter fabrication. The frackers here in Oklahoma, for example, frack with impunity. If there IS a figurative war, then it’s a war against the environment, and the frackers are winning it hands down.

The report, titled “Setting The Record Straight: Hydraulic Fracturing and America’s Energy Revolution,” was prepared by the Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Oklahoma’s own U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a senior member of the EPW Committee, lauded the report, arguing “. . . this report dispels the falsehoods perpetuated by the Obama Administration and environmental extremists about hydraulic fracturing.”

Who is the extremist? Someone like Inhofe, who has long argued that the science of climate change is a worldwide leftist conspiracy or someone in Oklahoma concerned injection wells used in the fracking process are causing nerve-rattling earthquakes every other day where they live?

The report itself is such a political statement that one wonders why the Republicans even bothered to dress it up in a “study” format. Here’s another sentence from the report: “Far-left environmental groups have teamed up with President Obama’s federal bureaucrats and the Hollywood elite in a coordinated effort to distort the truth about hydraulic fracturing and try to sway public opinion against it. “ How can anyone possibly take the “report” seriously after reading that? Movie stars are ruining America’s energy independence? That’s just nonsense.

Let’s be clear that fracking is a highly intensive industrial process that needs constant monitoring and heavy regulation. In the fracking process, water and chemicals are injected by high pressure into rock formations to release oil and gas. The wastewater is then injected into underground disposal wells. Scientists and environmentalists, have argued that the fracking process can lead to ground and surface water contamination. They have also linked wastewater disposal wells to a surge in earthquakes, especially in Oklahoma. On a larger level, the carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have contributed to global warming that threatens the planet.

To simply argue that the environmental impact of fracking is non-existent or negligible is, in itself, a sort of extremism that panders to rich oil and gas industry executives. Since 1989, Inhofe has received more than $1.7 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The larger question, then, is how to release oil and gas from the ground with the least amount of impact to the environment, not whether Hollywood elites and President Barack Obama are meeting in secret lairs plotting the demise of the diabolical fossil fuel cabal. It should be noted on a more serious level that the fracking boom has continued while Obama has been in office.

This country and the entire world needs to invest more in the development of renewable energy sources that have the least amount of impact on the environment. No report or, to be more accurate in this case, no amount of clichéd political sloganeering can dispel that argument.

Spoiled Oklahoma

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Recently compiled statistical information confirms Oklahoma continues to rely heavily on the federal government for its financial viability and maybe its very existence.

This comes against the backdrop of all the anti-federal government whining among conservatives here about overspending and deficits in Washington, D.C. Here are some questions: If Oklahoma paid its fair share to the federal government, what would happen to its health and education systems? What would happen to the economy? Could it even exist as an independent state?

Without help from taxpayers from other states, such as New York, Oklahoma would lose approximately $12.5 billion a year if it got back dollar for dollar what it paid to the federal government each year in income, payroll, business, excise and estate taxes. Last year, the entire state budget for Oklahoma was only $7.1 billion.

The information comes from State Smart, an online, interactive site published by the National Priorities Project, which describes itself as a . . . “non-partisan research organization dedicated to making complex federal budget information transparent and accessible so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent.”

Here’s how State Smart breaks down the numbers from Oklahoma: Using data from the most recent years available, Oklahoma received an estimated $38.6 billion from the federal government, which includes $7.6 billion for programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; $22.2 billion in payments and grants for programs such as Social Security and Medicare and Pell Grants; $2.1 billion in federal contracts; and $6.7 billion for the salaries and benefits of federal employees.

Oklahomans and the state’s businesses paid in $26.1 billion to the federal government during the same time period, with more than 75 percent coming from individual and payroll taxes. That’s a $12.5 billion difference, with Oklahoma on the receiving end.

By comparison, the state of New York, using the same calculations, received $191.6 billion from the federal government yet paid in $207.4 billion. That means New Yorkers paid an estimated $15.8 billion more in taxes that they received back from the federal government, which is more than enough to fund Oklahoma’s shortfall.

According to the available statistics that have calculated this information through the years, Oklahoma has long been known as a “receiver state,” or a state that receives more back from the federal government than it pays in federal taxes. In itself, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this system. The country needs the federal highway system and federal outposts, such as courts, offices and military bases, in all the states. Some states will always have to give more to support the country as a whole. This helps keep our country’s democracy functioning.

But what should continue to aggravate progressives and, really, everyone here is the relentless criticism by some conservatives about the overspending of the federal government and the push on the state level for more tax cuts for Oklahoma’s wealthy.

I’m reminded especially of Gov. Mary Fallin’s argument in a recent State of the State speech that Oklahoma has something to teach the federal government about fiscal responsibility and her recent campaign television advertisements bashing the federal Affordable Care Act. Is the lesson that you should criticize a larger and more powerful entity that basically provides for your financial viability, that, let’s face it, actually provides for your existence? It’s as if Oklahoma is an immature, spoiled child complaining about his/her generous and loving parents. Remember, that’s $12.5 billion spoiled.

The anti-federal government rhetoric here is hollow and shallow. It’s reductionist sloganeering. It’s not rooted in reality. It’s hypocritical. It’s not helpful for the vast majority of Oklahomans, only the wealthy and conservative politicians pandering to low-information voters so they can get elected. It’s dumb.

The truth is Oklahoma, with its low taxes and its budget of only $7 billion or so, remains a state with poor medical outcomes and health systems, dreadfully underfunded education systems, extreme costly weather disasters and rotting infrastructure, and the only thing that keeps it afloat are tax dollars that come from other states.

The following question is purely speculative and philosophical. Could the state even exist as a separate entity if the billions of dollars provided by taxpayers from other states were eliminated, the Oklahoma legislature continued to reduce state revenue through tax cuts for rich people and the recent oil and gas fracking boom here went bust? I believe it would certainly create a new mass exodus from the state.

Sure, it’s difficult to imagine all that happening at once or Oklahoma becoming a part of Texas or part of a newly formed state carved out among other receiver states or perhaps even a federal territory again, but more extreme events in history have happened and will happen in the future.

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