Health Care is a Right.

Yesterday’s post generated quite a bit of interest, and the arguments on both sides have been good (see comments). I’d like to extend the conversation a little bit more in today’s post . . .

Health Care is the Right of All Americans, Just Like Education.

Wait. Hold on. Is education a right? The answer is an undeniable “yes”. Education is a right affirmed by every state in the country, and every citizen is required to attend a public or private school. Mandatory schooling wasn’t provided by the constitution, nor was it invented by our founding fathers. A free and public education for every child in America didn’t happen until the early 20th century. It was a government response to an ineffective system in which only the wealthy could afford an education. While today’s public school system needs lots of modernization and reform, the national impact of mandatory schooling has been overwhelmingly successful for the better part of a century. Even the worst schools in America offer a comparative advantage to no school at all.

Since the creation of the public school system, our nation has expanded educational opportunities to include public high school and public universities. We’ve also seen the mutual benefit between public schools and private schools: each helps the other through free-market competition, innovation, and efficiency. The return on our investment is undeniable. In short, our national education system has been the central foundation for a prepared workforce ready to contribute to the national good in both public and private endeavors.

I would argue that if I have a right to be taught by a teacher, then I also have the right to be fixed by a doctor. Granted, that’s not how it is in our current system, so it sounds a little idealistic, but that’s how it should be. There was also a time when our nation couldn’t foresee how it could affirm the right to provide a teacher for every child, but we managed to do it.  Check out this selection from “A History of Public Education“:

Until the 1840s the education system was highly localized and available only to wealthy people. Reformers who wanted all children to gain the benefits of education opposed this.  The common-school reformers argued for the case on the belief that common schooling could create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. As a result of their efforts, free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children by the end of the 19th century. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

Should We Bankrupt Our Nation to Affirm a “Right”?

Conservatives have pointed out that the cost of a national health care plan would be astronomical. They are right, but what they fail to mention is that the current system is even more expensive that the one proposed by President Obama.

Currently, health care costs are rising three times faster than income levels. Within ten years, the cost of health care in America is guaranteed to double. Sixty percent of bankruptcies are a direct result of health care costs, and eighty percent of those who declare bankruptcy for medical reasons already had insurance. If we continue with the status quo, health care costs will bankrupt our nation. 

The plan proposed by President Obama is expensive, but it’s less expensive than doing nothing. His plan is fairly straightforward: provide a public option for health insurance that will drive down the costs of private insurance. Those who choose the public option will receive basic coverage, those who elect to keep their private insurance may do so. Just as citizens now have the choice to send their children to public or private schools, so can citizens choose public or private insurance. And many of the benefits for the the public/private plans are the same as the benefits for public/private schools: the public schools drive down the cost of private schools, and the private schools force public schools to be more accountable and efficient (even more so with NCLB).

Naturally, there are skeptics who point to early provisions that appear to create nightmare scenarios: hefty fines for small businesses, fines for switching insurance plans, the elimination of private insurance, and a host of other fine-print disasters.  Others point to the CBO estimates of long-term costs. Most of these claims are flatly untrue, with no basis in reality. Others are still being debated, proposed, fixed, or adjusted by both parties. Still others may be of actual concern. The ink has barely dried on the first draft of the legislation, and there is much to be debated, amended, and discussed. I agree with conservatives that this legislation deserves to see the light of day and not be rushed through. I hope that the Democrats give this ample time to marinate and generate public discussion.

As a closing thought, I’d like to let my readers know that the Republicans have offered their version of a health care plan, titled the “The Patients’ Choice Act of 2009.” The plan eliminates tax breaks for employers who provide health coverage to their workers, and offers a $5,710 tax cut to families and a $2,290 cut to individuals to help them pay for health insurance coverage. Thanks for the coupon, chumps!

I invite readers, especially those who disagree with Obama’s plan to post comments with specific links to specific details that worry them the most. I’ll do my best to research the concern and either change my mind, prove you wrong, or offer to agree to disagree. Similarly, I invite those who agree with Obama’s plan to submit links to instances where the Republicans have offered misinformation.


Is Health Care a Right or a Privilege?

Democrats believe that health care is a moral right deserved by all Americans. Republicans believe that health care is an economic privilege deserved by those who can afford it. I believe that Democrats are on the right side of history.  In the 19th century, the North argued that slavery was morally wrong, regardless of the economic implications. The South argued that slavery was economically desirable, regardless of the moral implications. The modern parallels are striking, and while I’m sure that Republicans would scoff at such a comparison, I would point to a comment made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on “Meet the Press” this weekend:

DAVID GREGORY (HOST): Do you think it’s a moral issue that 47 million Americans go without health insurance?

SEN. McCONNELL: Well, they don’t go without health care. It’s not the most efficient way to provide it. As we know, doctors and hospitals are sworn to provide health care. We all agree it is not the most efficient way to provide health care to find somebody only in the emergency room and then pass those costs on to those who are paying for insurance.

The moral flaw in Senator McConnell’s argument is that he asserts that emergency room care is economically inefficient for those with health care, not morally insufficient for those without it. Read his statement again: he’s saying that the biggest problem with health care is its undesirable impact on those of us who can afford to pay for it. I don’t accept that the emergency room is an adequate form of health care any more than I would accept that sharecropping was an adequate form of freedom.

When in conflict, life must triumph over money. Everything we know tells us that this is true.

We are obligated to provide universal health care to every American because we are capable of doing so; because saving lives is morally superior to saving money; and because deciding who lives and who dies should never be the work of a for-profit industry. We must consider it our moral duty because we uphold the virtues of good samaritanism, of helping thy neighbor, and of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. We are obliged because we have promised to do so every time we sing our anthem or wave our flag or pledge our allegiance. 

To suggest that our nation is incapable of providing universal health care is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of greed: that your wealth is more important than your neighbor’s health. You cannot call yourself an American, for you have not yet earned the privilege.

Of Prurient Interest

What happens when the very far edges of a political party take control? Welcome to Kansas politics. I’m not talking about conservatives, or Republicans, or people who support conservative principles; I’m talking about the very, very far right-wing of the GOP in Kansas. I want to take a moment to show you their faces and their agendas.

Kansas ultra-conservative’s motive for pushing voucher programs stems from their dissatisfaction with the culture and climate of public schools, not with the performance of the schools themselves. They’ve lost battle after battle to oppose evolution, support censorship, and elect durable candidates who will serve as a staunchly conservative voice. They have redefined themselves as the mainstream – making all social, political, and academic institutions seem obscenely liberal by contrast. 

At issue is their perception that our schools are wildly out of control. In one local district, hundreds parents have taken to sending signed letters to teachers demanding that they not teach students about bestiality, show X rated movies, or put students in trances. The issue isn’t that these things are happening, it’s that these parents have convinced themselves, and each other, that they are. Fueled by their own ignorance and the support of churches and political action committees, their attacks on public schools are unceasing. They are politically organized, politically active, and politically connected. They have elected their own to the legislature, and their agenda is regularly represented on the dockets of both the house and senate.

In one instance last year, legislation was introduced that made it a jailable offense for a teacher to possess any obscene material in the classroom (HR 2200). Sounds like a good idea, right? Wrong. The bill broadly defines obscene as “any material that appeals to the prurient interest.” What is prurient interest? It’s anything that arouses you, according to Merriam Webster. I work with teenagers, folks. The pencil sharpener is of prurient interest. So is Shakespeare.

The bottom line is that if you are convinced that our public schools are showing X rated movies and teaching kids about bestiality, you’d certainly feel morally justified in doing all that you can to punish public schools at every turn. You’d oppose every dime of state funding. You’d push for vouchers. You’d vote against bond issues. You’d aggressively oppose any tax increases for schools. You’d pass sweeping legislation to remove every obscenity, however prurient it may be, from every classroom. That’s exactly what’s happening in Kansas.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make. Our public schools are under attack from politically inspired people who are funded by national organizations, fueled by national agendas, and founded by those who have move so far to the right that everything to the left of them is an attack on their sensibilities, worthy of fiery outrage.

The ultra-conservatives are gaining ground, not because they are armed with the truth, but because they are blinded by fear. Its McCarthyism, and the Salem Witch Trials, and the McMartin preschool trials all over again. Not that I could teach my kids any of those historical events; communism, witch-craft, and pedophelia aren’t allowed in my classroom. I just got a parent letter telling me so.

The Problem with School Vouchers

The idea behind school vouchers is fairly simple – the state writes you a check for what it would otherwise spend on educating your child in a public school, and you apply that amount toward the cost of a private school tuition. At first, vouchers seem like a great idea. No child should ever be required to languish in a failing school, and all parents should have the freedom to send their child to whatever school they desire. I absolutely agree with these two ideas. Nevertheless, there are 5 reasons why vouchers are a bad idea.

1. The First Five Minutes. If we created a voucher program, we’d have to grandfather the 30,000 kids already in private schools in Kansas. At $4,200 per student, the first five minutes of a voucher program would cost our state $126 million. If we can’t pay for the kids we have in schools now, we certainly can’t afford to adopt 30,000 more. If the goal is to rescue kids in failing public schools, it should not begin with a $126 million check to the private schools.

2. Sorry, We’re Closed? The KC Star recently reported that most private schools in Kansas already have a waiting list. So while vouchers would immediately benefit the kids inside the private school system, there is little hope for those outside the private school system. Even if private schools would eventually expand to welcome all students, a voucher program requires the subsidization of the entire private school system before the first needy kid gets help. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, the solution cannot logically begin with footing the bill for private schools.

3. I Thought You Hated Socialism? I hear a lot of conservatives complain about how unfair it is that the government gives welfare checks to those who don’t want to pay for their food, housing, or health care. They argue that the poor should simply work harder to escape poverty instead of relying on government handouts.  During the overhaul of the welfare system during the Clinton administration, welfare as we knew it was transformed  into a temporary assistance program with a 5 year lifetime limit and a requirement that the recipient find a  paying job of 30-55 hours per week within two years or forfeit any further assistance. This was a pretty good idea. I’m sure voucher proponents who supported the new welfare restrictions would readily support similar restrictions for vouchers: 1) income limits of no more than the federal poverty level of $10,000 per year, 2) demonstrate ongoing attempts to find success within a failing school for two or more years, and 3) the school receiving the vouchers would be required to accept new students and comply with federal assessment restrictions. If the goal is to rescue kids from failing public schools, then voucher supporters ought to be comfortable living with the same restrictions that they thought were appropriate for other government assistance programs.

4. Accountability and Oversight. It has become trendy for voucher supporters to point to the lack of oversight or accountability as a primary cause of failure in public schools. The brainchild of the pro-accountability movement is No Child Left Behind, which I wholeheartedly support. I support it so much that I think no school receiving government funding of any sort ought to be exempt, including private schools. After all, who knows what those private school teachers are teaching kids these days? Consequently. any school receiving a voucher should be required to comply with the same federal standards of accountability that apply to public schools. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, then the government should protect its investment in private schools by demanding results.

5. Parental Backlash. There are two reasons why parents invest in private education: to avoid the brutality of public schools and to embrace the morality of private schools. Vouchers blur the lines of both reasons, and will likely threaten the order of things. Parents pay good money to keep their child away from corruption, and when the school starts importing it by the busload from the other side of town, parents will probably object. If the goal is to help kids trapped in failing public schools, it will have to be with the blessing of conservative parents who are comfortable with “urban influences” (a tongue-in-check term) invading their contrary way of life.

Voucher programs are an oustanding way to rescue kids trapped in failing public schools. If that’s who benefits, then I support them. But I suspect that the pro-voucher movement is populated by politically active parents who use the false idol of the disadvantaged kid as a ruse to punish the public schools and pay for the private education of their own children. Just a hunch.

Power to the People

We don’t talk about the “N” word enough. Yes, THAT “N” word. You know, THE “N” word. It’s the Voldemort of words: never to be uttered except in the most necessary of circumstances. My students struggle with the “N” word, too. Some believe that using it unabashedly takes the wind out of its sails. Others believe that it’s too controversial. I tend to agree with the latter, but only because I never really need to say the word. In that respect, I’m like the non-smoker who votes for a ban on smoking. If I don’t need to use it, nobody else does either.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get used. It’s especially common in high schools where rap music is as common as the word itself.

I don’t claim to be an expert on race.  When it comes to race, I have only my own experiences. As do each of my students – black and white alike. Nobody is an authority on race (excepting those who make it a core passion or academic study), but our experiences as people are vastly different – which is why we need to talk about it. Openly. Together. In the same room. And we do talk openly about race in my classroom for two reasons. First, race is a central issue in American Literature. Second, race is a central issue in my students’ lives. It’s a good conversation to have because it’s a conversation few of them have ever had in a constructive and safe environment. Some students readily admit that they aren’t comfortable talking about race. Seems to me like that’s exactly why we should have a conversation in the first place. Other issues, like sex and drugs, can make students uncomfortable – those are times when I need to defer to the emotional needs of the student. But while these kids can avoid sex and drugs, they can’t avoid diversity – so we talk about it openly.

When we first talk about race in my classroom, my white students instantly turn to the black students – as though my black students are prepared (and eager) to speak on behalf of the entire black community. We soon discover that my white students have a lot more to say about race than my black students. This is a natural consequence of being in the majority – my white kids rarely think about race as it applies to them- only as it applies to others – so they have more unprocessed ideas and feelings. My black students still struggle with some aspects of race, but have generally spent more time confronting the issue, either passively or directly. So our first hurdle is getting everyone to understand that race is a two-way issue – it is not like cancer or the flu; it is not some disease owned entirely by those who suffer from it.

Without fail, my white students first ask why we have a black history month but not a white history month. I tend to answer with the obvious. We already have a white history month. We have eleven white history months. More to the point, how is black history different from my history. Is the ubiquitous George Washington Carver not also a part of my history any more than George Washington is part of African-American history? It seems to me like a wiser use of our time should be to take whatever time and effort we invest in Black History Month and use that energy to make sure that our history classes include a fair and balanced portrayal of our nation’s history – honorable and dishonorable.

My white students really struggle with who gets to use the “N” word. It seems to be socially understood that my white students aren’t really allowed to use the word, while my black students have the option available to them if they wish. Nowhere is this more awkward than a group of white and black students singing along to a song that uses the word. Do I say it or not? Both races have to make a decision, but you get the sense that it’s tough for everyone; tough for the white kids who have to make a decision, and tough for the black kids who have to watch their white friends flinch in the face of diversity.

And it’s here that we have the most important conversation of the year.

We talk about power constructs. It’s the first time my students have linked power to being.  To them, power is the domain of adults – and all adults are essentially nothing more than adults – not black or white or male or female.  Adults have power and kids do not.  To them, there is no delineation between which adults have power. It’s the first time they’ve thought about how power is shared, moved, stolen, and shifted up and down social ladders.

We begin by thinking of society as a ladder – some are higher up the ladder than others. Each of us occupies a rung on the ladder. There are people above us, and there are people below us. It’s not how it should be in a democracy, but it is how it is. But there isn’t just one ladder – there are thousands of ladders based on religion, gender, masculinity, femininity, body weight, beauty, income, fashion sense, neighborhood, intelligence, and hundreds more. Collectively, these combine to form a big social ladder. Rich, white, heterosexual, Christian, good looking, physically healthy, mentally stable men occupy the top rung of the ladder, and their opposites sit at the bottom.

Once you understand the social ladder concept, you can understand why there is a double-standard regarding who can use the “N” word.

It is an acceptable practice for those who occupy a lower rung to shake their fist upward, and unacceptable for those higher on the ladder to push downward.  Women can trash men all day long, but men aren’t allowed to say much in response. Poor people can say “tax the rich!”, but rich people aren’t nearly as welcome to scream “tax the poor!” without looking like heartless bastards. Good looking people aren’t supposed to laugh at ugly people for wearing a $5 fanny-pack, but nobody seems to care much when an ugly person laughs at a good looking person for sporting a $400 purse. Fat people can growl at skinny people, but skinny people aren’t really supposed to growl back – unless the fat person is trying to steal food from their plate. I can make jokes about fat people stealing food; most of you cannot.

The difference is social power. You simply aren’t allowed to steal power from those lower than you on the ladder without looking like a racist, sexist, elitist, chump with no respect for others. If you are to improve your own standing, it is by reaching up and pulling others down as a way of pulling yourself up. You cannot step on the heads of others to make yourself feel better – hence the elementary adage “don’t put others down”. But you can reach up and try to pull others down, socially speaking. There is some debate about the number of black voters in California who voted to ban gay marriage (a debate largely created by a single news organization that seems to benefit from minority classes appearing to be odds with each other). Regardless of whether the presumption that African-Americans are more or less accepting of other minorities is myth or reality, it speaks to the fact that unless you are the bottom rung, there still may be power struggles at all points on the ladder, not just at the top.

Similarly, those who occupy the same rung on the ladder are able to use derogatory language to describe themselves and others who share the same rung. Words like “dyke”, “queer”, and “fag” are exclusively the property of those who identify with the words. For anyone else to use them is an insult.

And so it is that my black students seem to have the ability to choose whether or not to use the “N” word, while my white students don’t seem to have that option.

It is a false argument among those who possess the power to suggest that pulling people down the ladder is just as bad as pushing people down the ladder; that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Not so. What is fair isn’t always equal, and while the golden rule is a great rule, it doesn’t apply to social construct theory.  It might be true that “reverse racism” exists, but it hardly puts a dent in the power structure of the white establishment, so it doesn’t really do much harm; whereas it’s opposite has been the primary tool of oppression and the damage is real and measurable to the African-American community. It’s also interesting to note that while people like Rush Limbaugh claim that those lower than him on the ladder should never gain power at his expense (i.e. affirmative action), he owes the entirety of his success to snapping at the heels of those higher than him on the political ladder.

What is fair isn’t always equal. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn in any classroom.

Health Care vs Wealth Care

We live in a nation where every child is guaranteed a free, public education. It’s a concept so important to us that there are laws requiring children to go to school. Though far from perfect, our public education system serves our nation well, and the return on our investment is incalculable. All would agree that a literate and skilled workforce benefits the entire nation.

Smarter people make for a richer, wiser nation.

So what could healthier people do for our nation? If we are wise enough to make education a right, perhaps we should be wise enough to make health care a right as well.

Detractors would have us believe that health care is just too expensive to be paid for by the government, and unless we are willing to rethink the system, they are right. As long as corporate shareholders benefit from cancer treatments and broken legs, universal health care is little more than a distant dream.  For-profit medicine has given our nation the finest medicines, the newest technologies, and the best doctors and nurses in the entire world, but our nation becomes the victim of it’s own greed when we refuse to share our bounty with our brothers and sisters whose very lives depend on them.

We are smart enough to figure out a better way to treat our people; all of our people. 

I wish I could say that there was money somewhere in the system to pay for universal health care, but the top 10% of income earners in our nation own more than 70% of our nation’s wealth.  The top 1% of wage earners own nearly 50% of the wealth. If we must choose between universal health care or greed, I suppose the answer is pretty clear – at least to me.

Detractors would have us believe that the wealthy should not be punished for their success.  

It strikes me as odd that so many Americans claim to be so proud to be an American, and yet have so little compassion for America. Is it that you love this nation, or that you love what this nation can do for you?  There are those who seem to wave the Stars and Stripes with the same loyalty they show to their favorite baseball team or football team: a deep and unwavering love that should never cost more than a general admission ticket and a couple of beers. 

Those who are living the American Dream did not arrive here without great public assistance. It is the result of a million immigrants who sweated out your roads, your factories, your homes, your toys. It is the result of dozens of teachers who taught you to read and write. It is lives of millions of unknown soliders. It is the wonderful consequence of a dozen generations who sweated and sacrificed and gave all they could so that we could have a better life.

Now that it is our turn to sacrifice, we can do little more than wrap ourselves in the war-tattered flag of our forefathers and complain that taxes are too great a sacrifice for us to make. These are those who ask what our country can do for them.

And so our nation will get sicker and sicker until those among us who have more than their fair share of wealth understand their obligation to pay more than their fair share in taxes.

Two Books

One of the things that I’ve learned about getting awards is that they tend to lead to other awards and other forms of recognition. This can be a hard pill to swallow. If you don’t think you deserve the first award, then those that follow are equally awkward. Nevertheless, I’m going to do my part to shamelessly promote two books that feature yours truly:

 BOOK #1

The first book is Conversations with America’s Best Teachers: Teacher of the Year Award Winners Give Practical Advice For the Classroom and Beyond by J. William Towne. With a foreward by Kathleen McCartney, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Conversations with America’s Best Teachers provides in-depth interviews with 18 National Teacher of the Year Award winners and finalists as they offer practical advice to all K-12 teachers and parents. Inside you will also learn about the 10 commonalities that nearly all great teachers have as well as finding out what books have helped to shape and influence these teachers (text is from the website).

I think the coolest thing about this book are the reviewers:

Conversations with America’s Best Teachers provides valuable advice and creative methods for dealing with many of the problems teachers face in classrooms all over the country. Every teacher should read this book.”

– Richard Riley
Former U.S. Secretary of Education


“This is a book you need to read if you want to be – not just a better teacher – but one of the best teachers!”
– Harry Wong
Author, The First Days of School


“Towne may not have had America’s best teachers in school, but his book provides a national service in helping create more of them. Everyone with an interest in education- and that should include everyone- should read this book and will be glad they did.”

– Milton Chen
Executive Director, George Lucas Educational Foundation


“You can open Towne’s book on any page and find wisdom.”

– Jay Matthews
Washington Post


“Right out of the mouths of a remarkable collection of teachers. A pleasure to read!”

– Deborah Meier
NYU Steinhardt School of Education


“This book renews our faith in the world’s most important profession.”

– Dr. Spencer Kagan
Author, Kagan Cooperative Learning


Conversations with America’s Best Teachers makes a tremendously powerful case for teachers as empowered leaders.”

– Virginia B. Edwards
Editor, Education Week / Teacher Magazine


“The valuable insights of successful teachers in Conversations with America’s Best Teachers will not only benefit other teachers looking for solutions, but anyone who wants to know the real joys and challenges of the most important work in this country.”


– Michelle Rhee
Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools


“Worthwhile reading for educators, policymakers, and anyone interested in transforming today’s public education system.”

– Dennis Van Roekel
President, National Education Association


“Towne has done a great public service to all those who care about educating our children by highlighting great teachers and the work they do.”

– Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO


“I hope this book becomes a primer for teachers in training.”

– Kathleen A. Carpenter
Editor, TeachersNet Gazette


“These pages will inspire awe, appreciation, and sometimes shock at what is required to excel in the world’s most important profession. I hope that every teacher — and every school administrator — reads this book!”

– Eric Adler
Co-Founder & Managing Director, The SEED Foundation


“Inspirational! A must read for every teacher and parent. Both new and experienced teachers can benefit from the wisdom of these accomplished educators.”

– Joe Aguerrebere
President, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards


Conversations with America’s Best Teachers is a much needed addition to the education reform literature.”

– Robert Hughes
President, New Visions for Public Schools


“A must read for all teachers, new and experienced!”

– Patirck F. Bassett
President, National Association of Independent Schools


“Fun and interesting. You’ll learn something from each of these teachers whether you’re a peer or a wonk. Towne has done a remarkable service here.”

– Andrew J. Rotherham
Co-Founder and Publisher, Education Sector and

If you want the Amazon link for Conversations with America’s Best Teachers, click here.

 BOOK #2

The second book is A+ Educators: A World-Class Tribute to Our Best Teachers by Randy Howe. The synopsis from Amazon reads as follows:

A+ Educators profiles seventy-five amazing classroom teachers who have received recognition on the state and national level. Inspiring profiles of more than sixty amazing teachers. What makes a great teacher? While there is no particular formula, one thing is certain: Great teachers are worthy of the respect and admiration of students, parents, and colleagues, and they should be publicly recognized for the love of learning they inspire. A+ Educators profiles more than sixty amazing K–12 classroom teachers who have received the highest honors—including both National Teachers of the Year and winners of annual teaching awards in their respective states. The teachers come from all fifty states and from all grade levels and subjects. They are the trendsetters of the new century, using innovation, technology, and good old-
fashioned common sense to deliver the best possible education to their students.
Ok, so enough about me.