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Betsy DeVos and the now-Institutionalized Assault on Education

Processing, Analyzing and Responding to what the new Education Secretary Represents

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Betsy DeVos

Remember this day. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary of the United States of America, by the slimmest of margins and the bitterest of battles, which finally had to be settled by a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Because Republican Senators let money come before people, they took a hammer and drove a nail firmly into the coffin of American education. There are those who will say this may be a battle loss, but a strategic win for progressives — the need to have the Vice President cast the deciding vote will mean it’s tricky to push big reforms when you had absolutely no majority consensus on your methods or qualifications to do so — and that may be so, but everything we’ve witnessed up until now indicates a contrary point. Senate offices were pounded by phone calls this week by constituents absolutely freaking out over the voucher advocate’s potential to become Education Secretary. Two Republican Senators jumped ship. Others spoke out against her policy ideals — like Jerry Moran of Kansas — but did absolutely nothing to stop her.

Even without a majority support, once you’re in power, you can do a surprising amount of damage, even in the short term. Bureaucracy is there to make it harder, to pull back on the brakes like a terrified Student Driving Instructor watching his student pump the gas, but this whole administration has shown a remarkable disregard for following anything like traditional bureaucracy.

But let’s pull back and look at that bureaucracy a moment, shall we?

What IS the Secretary of Education?

The Department of Education has one stated goal: to endure education in the United States is of a good quality and fairly accessible by everyone. To that end, according to learn.org, the department tends to focus on “creating policies about financial aid and distributing financial aid, collecting data on education in the U.S., bringing attention to key education issues and preventing discrimination.”

The Secretary of Education is in charge of those efforts. She sets their course and relays them to the president. She will oversee educational reform and determine the best techniques for advancing them — much as previous secretaries pivoted to the problematic “Common Core” structure. In practice, the department handles a lot of research and sets the basic educational momentum for the country.

For that reason, nominees tend to, at the least, have a history in education.

From Michigan to the Heartland of America

Betsy DeVos, let us be clear, does not have a background in education. Her supporters say this makes her an outsider like “the Don,” a reformer with big ideas and the momentum — or more importantly cash — to see them done.

The cash, at least, she has put to the good use of her influence. Personally worth about $5.1 billion according to Forbes, sitting Republican senators have received around $115,000 from the heiress herself, and around $950,000 from the entire DeVos family since 1980. Furthermore, as reported by MLive, “Betsy DeVos has detailed her $5.3 million in political donations over the last five years as part of the vetting process for the U.S. Education Secretary post,” and in a back and forth with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), she admitted it was possible her family at large had donated collectively around $200 million to Republican election efforts. Such donations were enhanced by the fact that in the last two election cycles alone, her family donated $8.3 million to super PACs devoted to assuring Republican dominance.

Despite that, even Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted against the woman, based on the volume of opposition her nomination elicited from constituents and what they saw as limited qualifications for the job, along with the fact that she does not support public education.

Neither DeVos nor any of her children ever attended, worked in, or were sent to public schools. DeVos herself has no government experience outside of lobbying, which she has always extensively pushed to grant conservative religious schools vouchers for access to public funds with no strings attached. Similar facts saw her husband, Dick DeVos, run and get stomped in the midst of the 2006 race for governor of Michigan.

In her own hearing, she proved a complete lack of preparedness for the role she now will attempt to fill. She dodged every question she could, danced around the idea of standing up for students with disabilities, and while she seems to have a vague notion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s existence, she was utterly confused in regards to it, seemingly mixing it up with state efforts. She had no idea what the concept of proficiency versus growth entailed — a core tenet of modern education efforts. She would not commit to enforcing sexual assault prevention and protection on college campuses because she called them, “premature.”

She has said in the past, when addressing Christian schools’ reliance on vouchers, that “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her family has notably supported conversion therapy for LGBTQ people over the years, backed anti-same sex marriage efforts, and her own husband, during the previously mentioned governor run, advocated for “the ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory” in science curricula.

Our nation recognized very early on that public education was necessary for democracy or republics to thrive, but all Betsy DeVos has ever wished to do is divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools with no oversight. She has always wanted them to gain the benefits without dealing with the costs. She calls it “choices and options,” and “innovation,” but in practice demonstrates the exact opposite.

Here, in Michigan, DeVos is a former Republican Party chairwoman and former chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children. She very much helped to spread charter schools throughout the state, and the results were this: “most of which have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.” Innovation, indeed. She believes in choices but has never cared much for quality.

One need look no further than Detroit to see that — a city Republicans have always lauded as a prime example of Democrat failures. Thanks to DeVos, however, the city is littered with choices for schools. An excellent article by Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press examined the results of that choice including this sobering analysis: “failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children.”

But so long as there is profit, that is all that has ever mattered to the DeVos family.

So-called “School Choice” as the Death of Education

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Desperate to hold Trump’s nominee at bay, Democrats in the Senate held an all night session protesting her nomination leading up to Tuesday’s vote. At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hit out at all those who would eventually vote for her.

“The president’s decision to ask Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education should offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefitted from the public education system in this country,” Schumer said in a statement.

The United Federation of Teachers called DeVos a “danger to special education.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said her confirmation would threaten the very “existence of public education.”

Why?

I’ll be the first to admit there are some quality Charter School options out in the world. Yet, there are also quality Public School options. In the course of my own lifetime, I’ve seen behind the walls of both public and private institutions, and benefited from each. Yet when it comes down to it, the supposed medical balm of school choice for schools is, in truth, a poison for the entire public education system. Options, as I said before, often come at the expense of quality.

Charter schools could indeed be a force to nod about — if they also allowed accountability of their programs. They do not. They want the carrot — taxpayer funds provided to the public school system — without having to deal with the stick portion of the equation — accountability for how they use them and examination of what they teach. You simply can’t have it both ways, but DeVos has always advocated for it. She pushes a system that says: instead of helping underperforming schools, those who have the means should get out and leave the rest to rot.

Everyone wants what is best for their children. They fight tooth and nail to give them, in some cases, what they never had, and in others, to guarantee simply that they are ready to meet the world. Yet the question that DeVos represents is if you care enough to look beyond your own interests or care only for yourself — regardless of the consequences. Because there are always consequences. And when public institutions are broken down to benefit a few, more and more of those few always feel the squeeze with time. The few become fewer, and tighter entrenched. The many lament more and more. The separation, and the problem, grows.

The question is: does America wish to inflict such things on generations to come, locking the nation into a downward intellect spiral? Senators have already voted yes. There’s no changing that now. At this point, it’s on the hands of the people to punish them for it, and fight back against a broken system that has gone to benefit private agendas over public good.

“Democrats are trying to humiliate and embarrass some of these nominees,” White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway has told Fox News.

The fact is: candidates like Betsy DeVos embarrass themselves. On the practical end, though, humiliation is no longer enough. Humiliation only hurts those it’s directed at; it doesn’t save those who will suffer their wrath, or still be forced to endure their policies snark did little to block. Quality education and no less than the future of a nation depend on something more.

Pundits have gotten one thing right so far: it really is time to put what is best for children above all else.

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Chemical Submission for Star*Line

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Join me, fellow injections of imagination, in welcoming to the world the latest issue of Star*Line–the official magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I happen to be in this issue. Or rather my poem, “Chemical Submission,” is in this issue. They have not yet managed to figure out the technological specks for digitizing me personally into a more print-friendly form.

This did not stop them from digitizing old Jörmundgandr into an artistic debut (care of Joshua Chapman), however. Heed the snake. Read the collection. The World Serpent eats those who can but refuse to read.

As for my contribution…it’s essentially futurism broken down into a vision. Evolution is part of the human process, but unlike other species, we have taken it upon ourselves to alter that process and lend our own contributions to it. What will come of it? Will technology, genetic manipulation, all these little twists and tweaks, lead to preservation, or destruction? Artists ponder; scientists answer…

Star*Line is a quarterly print journal of poetry, in-publication since 1978. and you can purchase your own copy of the Winter 2017 issue HERE.

Sand Castle Oracles

An oracle set a castle in my palm.

It was the blessing, she said, for old souls

writ childish by a world that no longer

valued stories or fortunes.

 

I kept my hands cupped for hours after

she called the next old soul and the next

and I stared at the castle I had longed for

as the wind ate it away, grain by grain.

 

It reminded me of the sea,

10 dollars for a glimpse of childhood

misbegotten, when the waves carried me

away, and the world never knew my name.

Yesterday, I Walked

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From the Women’s March on Lansing, Michigan

Yesterday I walked along

what I expected to be a lonely road.

The fog was thick, the dawn was grey

and everywhere the voices, distant

ringing from a moon-blanched land

where winter gripped the roots.

 

Yet not a snowflake fell.

The ground was naked where I walked

stripped bare by the marching feet of folk—

men, women, the breaths of all those

cast aside by category and by creed,

a tremulous cadence striding by ones and twos

into a mass where silence could not reach.

 

I stood a while, by and by,

listening to the notes that misery had stirred,

and in the notes I hear the tearing cries

of history’s ebb and flow,

which built upon a thought suppressed

by years of doubt and faith.

 

No longer.

The dam has broken,

stripped away the vast edged lips that said

“Look at all the Other Things that you could do

Listen to the stillness and know that you are one

In an endless sea.”

 

Well they were right, weren’t they?

But the vastness does not belong to them,

it is a gathered voice, built of tears and edged

by staggered breaths no longer afraid to roar:

we have clothed ourselves for winter

and found that we have stamped it into spring.

 

Let it be true, let the world open its dreams

to you and I, the various, the beautiful, the bold

no longer alone, but crying out

not for the world they know but a world demanded

from the ignorant and the certain empowered

by an army built on hope.

 

Come away, come away from the lash of false praise

they dig out to divert; come away, come away

from the salt they sprinkle to tire and divide;

come away, come away with diligence,

listen to the voices of the sea, to the sirens singing

each to each, and know:

you are not alone.

(Yesterday, I walked with the thousands who converged for the Women’s March on Lansing, a part of the international Women’s March movement–something that turned out to be the largest protest in the history of the United States. But the actions cannot stop there. It is a beginning. But one that should demonstrate to all those who could make it and all those who watched that they are not alone. It showed millions how to forge connections beyond the bubbles we so often throw up, and learn how to effect real change: together.)

Nothing to Fear

We are taught there is something to be feared

in the beast which loses fear, which wanders

daylight and asphalt, even under baking skies.

 

If man has not tamed it, such fearlessness

is unbecoming, untrustworthy, like a savage

braving bramble paths and frosted fields

 

to bring some piece of its home

into new worlds. Without question,

 

we are told this evolution should know death,

a brand by bullet to mark the boundaries

of civilization and the Wild

 

ostensibly to protect us from the wildfires

of evolution. In truth, to burn in a pit

the wanderlust which eats away our insides.

(A response to news of a coming move against the Endangered Species Act: http://theslot.jezebel.com/republicans-are-coming-for-the-endangered-animals-1791331284)

The Effort to Destroy Affordable Care

Faces and Figures

The time? Around 1:30 in the morning. Do you know where your senators were?

Voting, apparently. Over the course of a marathon session that began Wednesday evening and went right into the wee hours of Thursday morning, Republicans in the U.S. Senate took the first steps to repealing a law they have detested from the moment President Obama put his pen to it.

Naturally, the first stage repeal of the Affordable Care Act, alternatively known as Obamacare (yes, good people, they are one and the same, despite all the insinuations a great many less educated people seem to believe), passed along party lines: a strict 51-48. What does that mean? It’s time for budget reconciliation, supposing the House jumps on the same bandwagon.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Official Photo

“The Senate just took an important step toward repealing and replacing Obamacare by passing the resolution that provides the legislative tools necessary to actually repeal this failed law while we move ahead with smarter health care policies,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the action in a statement.

Which is really strange, because there are a lot of actions being taken to repeal, but despite the use of those terms—Replace and Repeal—no one ever has an answer for what replace would entail. Frankly, they don’t seem to care.

Democrats naturally staged a protest of the vote, of course. They even broke the mold by dedicating their votes to those they said would be harmed by the ACA’s repeal.

11138118_10154006949582576_6245150656096396971_nThis seems like a good point to interject something. A lot of people don’t seem to understand the faces attached to this, so let me give you one: Mine. I would be affected if the ACA is repealed. I am a freelance contractor in my journalism work and a writer to boot. There is no one lining up to give me employer-based healthcare. My depression is a pre-existing condition. The ACA helps me get the medication I need to keep that in check.

But then again, I’m just some liberal scribbler, so what do I know?

I know that I’m not the only one who would be affected. My father would be affected. He is retired, and due to crippling physical and internal conditions, he takes a lot of pills and sees a lot of doctors. A lot. If the ACA is destroyed, it would ruin him. Part of my time is spent caretaking for him. I do not want to have to watch him wither any faster than time has already decreed because someone in a building halfway across the country doesn’t see his face, nor recognize that he could be one of many they would condemn to death.

Would you like more examples? I have friends. I have acquaintances. I could bring pictures and files and all sorts of numbers games to this, but of course, the numbers and reports are already out there. We have those figures. The problem is that politicians don’t look at them.

Our institutions can’t protect us unless we’re willing to stand up and protect them, enforce them, make them anything more than paper tigers. Republicans seem determined to repeal and delay, bludgeoning provisions of Obamacare into the ground and then shrugging their way through to a solution years down the line, but people will die in the meantime. They won’t protect us. Democrats can’t protect us. We have to protect ourselves, with phone calls, with protests, with organization. Otherwise, institutions like the ACA, whatever we want to hope, can in fact die. So can democracy, for that matter.

Reconciliation and the Death of Individual Insurance

Now do you remember that little word I mentioned before: reconciliation? It’s an important word. That refers to a procedure which allows the Senate to operate against anything related to the budget—taxes and subsidies, for example—as long as they have 51 votes. Yes, Democrats can filibuster anything else they want, but a lot of damage can still be done under the reconciliation umbrella.

Supposing they begin to gut the various provisions of the ACA—which Republicans are salivating to do—their hope is that they can then say, “We have the numbers. We have already begun. The rest of you can jump on the bandwagon and find something different, something we like, or the market collapses, and that will be on you.” Because that’s how they’ll frame it: despite all their power here—control of all three branches of government here, mind you—they’ll say that they were repealing what they saw as a bad law, and those fighting them were letting people die through inaction. Of course, the idea of letting Obamacare stay until they actually have something they could replace it with wouldn’t set well with their own side, so that wouldn’t happen either.

In theory, it should be easy for the Democrats to turn this around on Republicans, but in recent years, they have caved on a lot of topics. They raise loud voices, but they don’t stick with it terribly well, and don’t maintain media spin so well as the Republican side of the aisle, disturbingly.

All they need to do is make this line stick: the death of Obamacare, of the ACA, is the death of the entire individual market.

This isn’t overdramatization; it’s fact: if the ACA is stripped away, every insurance company in America would yank individual policies, because to do anything but would lead to monumental losses on their end. Currently, it’s believed up to 22.5 million people could lose insurance through repeal of Medicaid expansion and loss of protections and subsidies in the individual market. Lose all those people, you’ve none of the healthy and profitable chaps that insurers are counting on to give them money and not require much from them in turn. Bye bye individual mandate and subsidies? Bye bye individual insurance.

Even those benefiting presently from employer-sponsored health plans, rather than out on the free market like myself, would not escape unscathed, though.

It’s the ACA that guaranteed employers couldn’t demand waiting periods before coverage for pre-existing conditions would kick in. Previously, that little caveat could take up to a year to resolve. Lose your job in the meantime? Tough luck.

Of course, the ACA also made mandate caps on individual costs for health plans—both those hosted by companies and on the individual market. Remove that, and even a good job might not defend against medical costs, which can cripple the most business savvy of us. Likewise, the ACA said that capping benefits was a no-no. Healthy young fellow? Great. Suffer from MS? Removing the no-limits policy would see you exceeding your cost support in no time, and leave you up the creek.

Hello Fellow Hostages

Naturally, no discussion of these repeal efforts would be complete without mentioning our incoming president, currently in the midst of his own “trickledown” problems.

In a heated press conference on Wednesday, Trump said that his administration was dedicated to the repeal and replace platform.

“It will be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously,” Trump said. “It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day, could be the same hour.”

However, he also couldn’t resist using the opportunity to blackmail the legislative branch by insinuating that the replace portion wouldn’t be offered until his pick for secretary of the Health and Human Services Department—Rep. Tom Price—was confirmed in that role.

“The easiest thing would be to let Obamacare implode in 2017, and believe me, we’d get pretty much whatever we wanted, but it’d take a long time,” Trump said. “We are going to be submitting, as soon as our secretary is approved, almost simultaneously, shortly thereafter, a plan.”

No hints as to what that plan would be, of course, or any genuine proof there would be one—just the hope that if he got his way, the rest of the country might get something like theirs.

This whole situation should be at once terrifying, infuriating, and downright maddening. The only way forward? To fight tooth and nail for those you know who will—not may—suffer from these systemic actions. Access to high-quality, affordable health care is at stake, and no one can afford to bury their heads in the sand on this issue.

So Shall It Be Written

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Witches by Hans Baldung, 1508

Where is it written in the fantasy:

witches are hideous?

 

Perhaps it was a girl immersed in light

but not people, storming the beaches

of the library, hunting power in faith.

 

Just because she speaks a foreign language

 

they look on the mother, world-weary,

father gunned down on the Yellow Brick Road

and remind her that she’s not good enough for dreams.

 

That witches are always the villains,

that reality will clutter wet pages.

Literary Rogues in a Bardic Market

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The Bard by John Martin (1817) – AKA, “STRUMMMMM!”

There are those among us—flamboyant, extroverted souls—for whom marketing and self-projection and sharing is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a real knack. Certainly, it’s something that seems to be paramount for the modern age of communication, even amongst publishers eyeballing potential writers.

I am not one of those people. I have never had that privilege.

Sorry, potential publishers.

In regards to those I meet and bond with, I make a fierce, dedicated connection. If it’s in my power, I would do it for them. Yet I do not connect easily. I wrap myself in thick cloaks and try to go through life covered up, lest someone see something they don’t like. I can ask questions and assail political and fantastic intrigue with abandon; turn the question around on me, and I introvert hard.

In that way, I may be a writer in a world which prefers bards.

This may also be why I’m the rogue of most adventures. I do my best work in the shadows.

Which is a problem, because stories unite mankind.

When I was just starting out as a journalist, I remember one of my first editors told me a fun fact about local journalism.

“Honestly, we could kill the headlines, kill the articles, and most people wouldn’t mind,” he said. “So long as you have the obituaries and the sports and the puzzles, people will keep coming back for more.”

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Roguish Art by Linda Lithen@Darantha (From the Critical Role Fan Art Gallery)

All of human existence is based on interaction, on the notion of society—finding ways to work together. Some cave person somewhere woke up one morning and went, “Bloody hell, I’ve been living next to that fellow down the mountain for 10 years; he could have figured out the means to ride sabretooth tigers, and I would never know.”

Stories make people more real to us. They break down fear and hate and grow empathy. The person sitting in the coffee shop reading about the 80-year-old former air force pilot in town who died this week isn’t doing it because he’s plotting out which zombies might be best for his necromantic army—he’s reading the story of someone he never got to know in life, learning of the wife and children left behind, the opportunities for other human interactions and adventures yet to be told.

Of course, it’s harder for a story to be heard when you’ve no audience at hand, isn’t it?

Apathy breeds discontent. It breeds fear. We don’t try because we’re afraid of what might happen. We’re afraid of what people might say. Somehow, the stigma of trying and failing has become worse than doing nothing at all—no matter how dependent we are on the outcome.

In my case, the whole matter isn’t helped by a severe clinical case of depression (which, like so many other personal details, I don’t talk about all that much publicly). I expect the world to have struggle. We all should. But my own mind struggles with me—it plays up the bad and laughs in the face of logic.

Of course it’s bad, it’ll say. No one cares. But it could certainly be worse…

And when people ask, that little voice is right there to remind me of the people who turned away because they were sickened by that hurt and weakness, and tell me it’s better to suffer in silence than be true. “I’m in pain” becomes “I’m fine,” and I become complacent in my own destruction.

Some rogue, setting off my own traps.

In a way, it’s the same with writing. You get what I put out there, what you see—not necessarily what is. Thus, for many writers, for performers, for the lot, it can all appear so effortless.

It’s not easy. Not for me. Not for a lot of people. There are days nothing more than sheer necessity allow me the strength to muscle out of bed. This past month, in the wake of the disastrous election, I’ve found it particularly difficult to write. Nothing comes without effort—there are whole days I spend struggling to convince myself I should exist. I feel like I’m drowning, flailing in a dire attempt to gulp one more mouthful of air.

Some days are easier, some days grueling. I try to create because it’s intrinsic to my being. The need is always there, but it is agonizing to do in the face of my own innards.

I stumble.

I fall down.

I break.

I fail.

You don’t see that, because of that introvert tendency.

But you need to understand that I’m human. The same as the person on the other side of that counter, as the child sulking in the corner of the playground, as you. I’m over here trying to tell myself this doesn’t make me weak.

It just means I need to be better about accepting and fessing up to my human failings. If that doesn’t make me the most desirable catch economically, well…

I’m just going to have to keep fighting through the terror and doubt to keep on living anyways.