Friday, October 24, 2008

One Consequence of Question One

MASSACHUSETTS FORUM

By Leo V. Sarkissian

Meet Caitlin Hadley. She is proof of how well individuals with Down syndrome and other special needs succeed when given the chance. She's also just one example of why we should not eliminate income taxes through Question One as doing so would severely hurt services to children and adults with disabilities and others.

Caitlin was hired as an assembler at Milton Roy in Acton. She performed well there with an outstanding record. When a quality control position became available, Caitlin was a natural fit. After a short time on the job, she was promoted to quality control specialist. In this role, she checks pump subassemblies for accuracy. But Caitlin doesn't stop at her job description. She is extremely helpful and occasionally mentors substitute assemblers who are learning the job.

The Minuteman Arc assisted Caitlin in making the transition to her new role. This was made possible through our tax dollars. A staff person helped her succeed by reviewing the job with her and coaching her initially so she would develop the skills and confidence. The coach also assisted her in establishing a daily routine including breaks, lunch and transportation.

Now Caitlin is a taxpayer. This is no accident. It's something that her parents wanted for her and that she has worked for. She got her diploma from Arlington High. She was able to get a good education through a regional school collaborative which receives public dollars through cities and towns. If she was born a decade earlier, she would have experienced a different world and perhaps she would not be working at Milton Roy.

Funding for special education did not begin until the middle 1970s, and there were few employment programs until the 1980s. Past investment through tax dollars has made a difference for Caitlin and if we increase that investment, it will make a difference for future generations. Like the rest of us, Caitlin is more than just an employee. She has a pretty full life and schedule. She enjoys performing in a chorus, bowling, going out to eat and stays active with friends.

Caitlin is now making a transition from her parents' home to a group home. At her new home she will receive support services. Someone will help her learn how to live on her own and teach her things like money management, cooking and maintaining a routine. It is a step that will take hard work on Caitlin's part and support from her parents. They are up to the task.

Recently, Massachusetts has struggled to find opportunities for individuals such as Caitlin. In the past six years, we have seen a 200-student increase in the number of graduates with disabilities who need some type of adult services. But we haven't been able to increase the funding to meet that rise in need. As a result there are fewer employment opportunities, and fewer taxpayers. And now Question One threatens to slash that funding further.

If Question One passes, Caitlin and thousands like her may not get the supports they need. Individuals with disabilities want to work and want to participate in their communities. Individuals and their families make the effort on a daily basis. But to ensure individuals have the opportunities to succeed, we need the investment in services. It's an investment that has paid off in taxpayers and full lives in our communities. That is why we must say no to Question One.
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Sarkissian is executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, whose mission is to enhance the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
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Copyright © 2008 by the Massachusetts Forum. 10/08 Letters should be sent to the Forum, P.O. Box 121066, Lafayette Station, Boston, MA 02112

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Rescue Package for Working Women


By Ellen Bravo

Wall Street tycoons behave irresponsibly, bring the country to financial brink, hold out their hands for an eleven-figure bailout -- and lobbyists applaud that as a rescue.

Women achieve daily miracles fulfilling responsibilities to their employers and their families, ask for modest protections so they won’t be fired for having a sick kid -- and lobbyists denounce that as mandates.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago, we were surrounded by ashtrays and smokers wherever we worked, ate or traveled. Babies sat on our laps in the car. Most paints were lead-based.

In each case, public health experts alerted us to the dangers. Values shifted; what once seemed normal no longer met the test of public acceptability. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned government representatives to do their job and set new standards.

Action on these items was nothing unusual. From child labor to Jim Crow to excluding those with a disability, our government has stepped in to end long-time practices. Each time they did so because popular sentiment said, “Enough.”

Once again, there is a need for the government to protect its citizens. This time it’s to make sure that workers are not penalized for being good parents.

We have a giant disconnect between what family members need and what the workplace provides.

It flies in the face of our values, and hurts our families and businesses, when workers can’t afford to take time to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. And it jeopardizes us all when people are compelled to go to work and cook our food or care for our children when they themselves are sick.

Each time we try to advance, opponents rise up to tell us the sky will fall, business will flee. Consider this statement:

“[This bill] would create chaos in business never yet known to us… Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the [goals of reform]… What I do take exception to is any approach … which is utterly impractical and in operation would be much more destructive than constructive to the very purposes it is designed to serve.”

That’s Ohio Congressman Arthur Lamneck, arguing in 1937 against proposed rules outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage. More than 70 years later, these standards clearly aren’t what threaten the American economy. But lack of minimum standards really is harming American families.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parents I know of three lovely children. Let’s call them Scott and Kate. After Scott’s job was outsourced to Taiwan, the couple lost their home. Since then, Scott got another job. Recently, they learned their daughter has cancer. Both parents have family leave and understanding employers. The problem is the leave is unpaid. They don’t know how they can make ends meet with the double whammy of losing income while on leave and having to cough up the 20 percent health insurance co-pay.

There are many heartbreaking parts of this story. But what hit me the hardest was when Kate said, “I feel like I failed my family.”

Kate and Scott have done nothing but work hard and take good care of their children. That should be enough. The failure here is a government refusing to bring the workplace into sync with 21st century realities.

Providing incentives to employers who move jobs overseas rather than those who grow them here -- that’s the failure. Allowing health care providers and insurers to jack up prices without regard for the impact on workers and their families, or on employers struggling to keep their heads above water -- that’s the failure. Opposing legislation that would bar employers from firing a worker who needs to take a day off to care for a sick child or parent -- that’s the failure. So is blocking progress on bills that would provide income for workers during family leave. And even worse, telling workers these are personal problems they have to work out on their own -- that’s an outrage.

The current bailout of irresponsible financial actors makes one thing crystal clear: those who demand smaller government are quite happy to have government intervention in their own behalf.

It’s high time we demand government do its job: set and enforce rules that benefit not just the rich and powerful, but the vast majority of American workers and their families.
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Bravo is an author and activist who teaches women’s studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by American Forum.

By Margaret Martin Barry and Penny Berger

Make no mistake – the so-called “Civil Rights” Initiative currently on Nebraska’s ballot has only a negative connection to the Civil Rights Movement in our country.

The initiative is intended to put an end to what remains of affirmative action. Discrimination and exclusion on the basis of race and gender have made a mockery of our democratic ideals. Affirmative action has been the principle means of achieving the inclusion that was the goal of the Civil Rights Act.

Affirmative action as a tool to achieve equality is admittedly an imperfect instrument. It is also the only tool that has shown any capacity to address the issues of racism and gender discrimination across America.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented progress toward the goals of our democracy, most people understood that the new law, by itself, could not achieve racial and gender equality. Specific steps were needed to change the habits and institutions of discrimination and exclusion. Affirmative action became an enforcement mechanism designed to give meaning to the Act. It required employers and educational institutions to act in ways that would ensure participation and acceptance of minorities and women.

However, through a series of recent decisions the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowed the reach of affirmative action. Currently, race or gender can only be one of a plurality of factors considered in meeting narrowly stated diversity goals. An acceptable diversity standard under current law cannot contain quotas or fixed goals.

Nonetheless, opponents of affirmative action claim it is merely a system of racial preferences. This is not only misleading, it’s an outright fabrication. Arguments in favor of anti-affirmative action initiatives should be recognized for what they are: calculated cynical misappropriations of the vocabulary of the Civil Rights Movement to end America’s commitment to remedy past and continuing prejudice and discrimination.

Affirmative action programs are the only proven, effective means of increasing opportunities for women and minorities. This “Civil Rights Initiative” undermines polices that are meant to promote inclusion of minorities and women. In California where a measure similar to the initiative was passed, a simple requirement that successful contractors demonstrate that they had not excluded minorities and women from the bidding process was struck down by the California Supreme Court; meanwhile, from 1996-2006, minority enrollment at the University of California at Berkeley fell by 65 percent.

Official race and gender “neutrality” has the same attraction as “gradualism.” It sounds fair because it is does not endorse racism or gender bias. All the same, it makes both forms of discrimination easier and more likely.

The logic of the initiative is seductive, but it is faulty. It rests its legitimacy on the fallacy that there is only one “right” person or “best qualified” applicant for a job, or a place in school, or on the team. The truth is that every person brings a combination of assets and liabilities, some of which cancel out others. In the past, the “ties” created by this reality were resolved by the historical affirmative action employed for most of human history: Is the applicant a member of my fraternity? Is he related to me or my friend or another member of my family? Do I play golf with his Dad?

The Civil Rights Act replaced the old affirmative action with a system intended to focus on increasing the participation of historically neglected or affirmatively excluded groups in the society, instead of those who are privileged by class, race or connection.

Nebraskans must not fall for anti-affirmative action propaganda. Instead, we must improve the tools used to achieve equality of opportunity and not work backwards to eliminate those that have proven their worth.
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Barry is co-president of the Society of American Law Schools and an associate professor at Columbus School of Law, at The Catholic University of America. Berger is a volunteer staff attorney for Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Amendment 48 Goes Too Far

By Patricia Schroeder

My very first job after graduating from Harvard Law School was as a part-time lawyer for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. I was working on cases related to expanding access to birth control to all couples regardless of their marital status. At the time the birth control pill was recently approved as safe, but it was not yet legal in all states for all women. The Supreme Court in 1965 established basic privacy rights to birth control, but only for women who could produce a marriage license.

Fast forward to 2008, 40 years later. In my worst nightmare, it never crossed my mind that voters in Colorado would be considering a constitutional amendment that could outlaw birth control pills. Emergency contraceptives could also be illegal under Proposition 48, a form of birth control that if taken up to 72 hours after intercourse can prevent an unwanted pregnancy, especially used by rape and incest victims.

If you need more reasons to Vote No on 48, chances are you or your own family will be affected if this crazy proposal passes. Like thousands of living women in Colorado in the 1970’s, I struggled with difficult pregnancies. I lost twins during my second pregnancy and almost died during childbirth. It was a painful time for my family, as it is for all families. I can only imagine how devastating it would have been if government officials had shown up on my doorstep, asking questions about what had happened, was it really a miscarriage? Yet, couples could face that kind of unthinkable government investigation if Colorado voters allow Amendment 48 to pass.

If you don’t believe it could happen, just take a look at the plain language of the Amendment. It would amend the Colorado constitution to grant, for the first time, inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law to fertilized eggs. Even the proponents of the Amendment admit they don’t know all the possible ramifications.

Would couples struggling to get pregnant be allowed to use in vitro fertilization, which depends on fertilizing more eggs than a woman can carry to term? Would common birth control methods, such as the Pill, IUDs, the Patch, and the Ring, be outlawed because they operate by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus?

Could child welfare agencies be called to investigate abuse of a fertilized egg? Would a fertilized egg have standing to sue a for getting chemotherapy for cancer because it might be harmed? Amendment 48 would open more than 20,000 statutes and regulations to re-interpretation by the courts and lawyers. Almost every area of the law would be affected, including criminal law, family law, trusts and estates, elder law, tort law, juvenile law, health law, and business law.

In this presidential election year, Coloradans will decide one of the most competitive senate races in the country, several strongly contested congressional races, and as many as a dozen statewide ballot initiatives. There are a large number of questions on the ballot this fall, and many of the issues are complicated. But it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar, a medical ethicist or a genius to see that Amendment 48 is ridiculous. Coloradans have rejected these extreme positions before and must do so again.

Amendment 48 is not a homegrown initiative. National groups such as The American Life League, Lifeguard, and the Thomas More Law Center are carrying out a multi-state strategy with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. In addition to Colorado, they tried to get similar amendments on the ballot in Georgia, Montana, and Oregon, but failed. These outside groups are hoping, in Colorado, that the Amendment will sneak through the clutter of a crowed ballot. They are counting on you to be distracted and not to focus on the full implications of Amendment 48.

Well, they are forgetting that Coloradans are independent thinkers. Coloradans believe that they and their neighbors should have the ability to plan when they want to start a family, decide when they are ready to become parents, and make other important life decisions. By establishing constitutional rights from the moment of fertilization, Amendment 48 would eliminate a woman’s right to make personal, private decisions about her own health care, in consultation with her doctor and her family.

Years ago, when I was asked how I could be both a mother and a Congresswoman, I replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.” On November 4, I urge Coloradans to use their brains and protect women’s uteruses. Vote no on Amendment 48.
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Schroeder represented Colorado’s First Congressional District from 1973 to 1996.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08


MISSOURI FORUM


By Erin Noble


This election Missouri voters will have the opportunity to secure clean, renewable energy and more energy independence for our state. Backed by the names of 163,000 Missourians, a statewide Clean Energy Initiative has been certified by the Secretary of State and will appear on the November ballot as Proposition C.

The initiative requires the investor-owned utilities Ameren, Kansas City Power & Light, Aquila, and Empire to obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021. The initiative defines renewable energy as wind, solar, biomass (not to be confused with corn ethanol) and small hydropower.

A vast majority of Missourians support the Clean Energy Initiative because Proposition C works for our economy, for Missouri schools, for public health and for the environment, while protecting consumers from high-energy costs. Kansas City Power & Light also announced its support earlier this year, joining a diverse coalition of labor, public health, environmental and faith-based organizations that endorse Proposition C, including the United Steelworkers, Restoring Eden - Christians for Environmental Stewardship, and Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Twenty-six states have already adopted similar clean energy policies and are currently benefiting from cleaner, cheaper electricity created through renewable energy projects. Their success has paved the way for Missouri’s own Clean Energy Initiative.

With Missouri’s abundant renewable resources and strength in the technology sector, our state is poised to become a national leader in clean energy. That means developing the technology behind clean energy, building the infrastructure to support it, manufacturing the components to drive it, and providing the workforce to run it -- all jobs that will revitalize Missouri’s economy.

This opportunity comes as good news as total employment in the manufacturing industry in Missouri declines. Investment in clean energy connects our industrial base to a sustainable future and creates Missouri manufacturing jobs. Proposition C will further stimulate our state’s economy by adding tax revenue locally as well as statewide. As already evidenced by the wind farms built in Missouri in the past few years, clean energy developments have a direct, positive impact on local school districts. Last September, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the success of a local wind farm on in Gentry County. According to the article, “The 9,000-acre Bluegrass Ridge Farm is slated to pay more than $500,000 in property taxes next year to Gentry County, the largest share of which will go to the King City School District.”

Eighty-two percent of Missouri’s electricity currently comes from polluting coal-fired power plants. Particulate matter from coal power plants is linked to asthma and lung disease. Coal plants also emit mercury a toxic metal that causes developmental brain defects in children. In fact, women and children are warned to avoid eating fish from many Missouri waters due to mercury contamination. Under Proposition C, clean energy derived from wind and solar power will begin to replace fossil fuels for a cleaner, healthier future for Missouri families and the environment.

Because of the increasing costs of fossil fuels and the likely imposition of constraints on greenhouse gas emissions, Proposition C would produce net savings to electricity customers over time as clean energy begins to replace coal. As an added guarantee, the Clean Energy Initiative includes an ongoing rate cap that provides the best protection for consumers than any other state. The bottom line: Proposition C will protect ratepayers from impending spikes in the costs of fossil fuels, saving Missouri consumers a cumulative total of $331 million over the next 20 years.

In November, Missourians will have the opportunity to choose clean, renewable energy and take a critical first step towards a secure energy future. Proposition C, the Clean Energy Initiative, represents a true win-win situation for all Missourians as we lessen our dependence on out-of-state coal and gain critical new jobs, new businesses and new revenues for Missouri.

It’s time for Missouri to join the 26 states that have already enacted a Renewable Energy Standard and are reaping the benefits of energy independence and economic growth.
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Noble is Energy Policy and Outreach Coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 10/08


By Angela Onwuachi-Willig

For years, affirmative action opponents have pointed to stigma as a reason for dismantling the policy. They have argued that affirmative action engenders feelings of inferiority and dependency in racial minorities and unfairly burdens racial minorities with others’ doubts in their abilities.

Do not believe the hype. The Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative, which would end affirmative action in the state, would cause a startling lack of diversity in Nebraska’s universities. In the summer and fall of 2007, I, along with Professor Emily Houh of the University of Cincinnati College of Law and Professor Mary Campbell of University of Iowa Sociology, explored the relationship between stigma and law school affirmative action admissions policies by conducting a survey of both white students and students of color at seven, high-ranking public law schools in United States.

Four of these schools—the University of Cincinnati, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia—employed race-based affirmative action when our subject class—the Class of 2009—was admitted, while the remaining three—UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the University of Washington—did not use such programs. In conducting our study, we generated new descriptive evidence that counters the stigma arguments that are commonly advanced against affirmative action.

Overall, our study revealed that there was no causal connection between racial stigma and affirmative action at the seven surveyed schools. Specifically, our survey results showed that there was minimal, if any, internal stigma (feelings of dependency or inadequacy) felt by minority students at the surveyed schools, regardless of whether their schools practiced race-based affirmative action, and that there was no significant impact from external stigma (the burden of others’ doubts about one’s qualifications) felt by minority students at the surveyed schools. In fact, our survey results showed that there is overwhelming support across the entire sample for the idea that people should learn to interact with others from diverse backgrounds, and this support did not vary by school type. Also, the survey results revealed strong support among the respondents for the idea that diversity enhances education.

Most importantly, surveyed students who attended schools without affirmative action repeatedly expressed in their comments what they saw as a deficiency in their education as a result of the lack of racial diversity in their schools. For instance, one student at a non-affirmative action school declared: “A diverse student body in education is so important…I have learned a lot from many of my classmates…from large cities. Some of these classmates are racial minorities, and I feel lucky to be able to learn from them the lessons I was unable to learn growing up in a rural, all-White area…I really wish there were more racial minorities in our school to make it a truly diverse experience.”

As these students have learned, stigma (and other anti-affirmative action) arguments are simply outdated and depend upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the policy and its goals. During the 1860s, similar arguments were made against remedial policies when opponents of the Freedmen’s Bureau argued that the establishment of the Bureau would only make recently freed Blacks “special favorites of the law.” These arguments failed back then (for obvious reason), and they should also fail today in promoting the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative.

During and before the 1860s, there was nothing more stigmatic than being counted as merely three-fifths of a person and living under the conditions of brutal and violent slavery and oppression. Today, where education reigns supreme, there can be nothing more stigmatic than not having a meaningful chance to obtain a degree or get a job, being the only person of color in a college classroom, or quite frankly (as comments from our survey demonstrate), attending classes where there are only a few minorities.

Affirmative action helps to combat racial disadvantage by equalizing opportunities in education and work. As our history shows us, affirmative action did not create racial stigma. Racial stigma created it, and affirmative action is needed to eliminate this racial stigma and create diversity in the state.
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Onwuachi-Willig is professor of law and the Charles M. and Marion J. Kierscht scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law and a member of the board of governors of the Society of American Law Teachers—SALT.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08




OHIO FORUM

By Bill Faith

Ohio partisans have set aside their usual election-year differences and have joined together to urge a “yes’’ vote on Issue 5. Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, agrees with Republican legislative leaders on this one. The two major party contenders for Ohio attorney general are also in agreement.

Issue 5 asks voters to accept or reject Ohio’s new law that caps interest rates on payday loans at 28 percent annually, down from 391 percent APR allowed under the old law. Ohio lawmakers approved the 28 percent interest rate cap after a year-long legislative debate. Ohio legislators authorized payday lending in 1995. By 2007, Ohio had nearly 1,600 payday storefronts -- and payday lenders had more than 300,000 Ohio customers trapped in a cycle of debt, contributing to everything from a rise in demand for food pantries to an increase in home mortgage foreclosures.

While it’s easy for some to blame the victim, our legislators rightly concluded that the problem with payday loans is their flawed design. They are very easy to get but very hard to repay.

Payday lenders’ internal documents show they target “single-parent households with multiple children’’ who are “financially stressed’’ or people who are on fixed incomes. Ex-payday employees said they were routinely dispatched to Laundromats, low-income apartment complexes and senior citizen centers to round up customers.

Even the men and woman who serve our country have been among the lenders’ prime targets. After the Pentagon reported that the predatory practices of payday lenders were hurting military families and undermining morale, Congress stepped in and capped the annual interest rates for loans to military borrowers at 36 percent.

Payday lenders insist that Ohio’s new interest rate cap law will force them out of business and leave those who need quick cash no other options. They are wrong. Many credit unions offer short-term loans at just 17 percent interest, and more than two-thirds of Ohio’s existing payday lenders have applied for state licenses to offer different types of loans.

Ohio’s new law also calls for a non-public state database to track loans and ensure that lenders are complying with a provision that limits the number of loans a borrower can take out to four each year. It is this provision that is the subject of the lenders’ “Big Brother’’ TV ad.

This is the most insulting ad so far. The lenders did not object to the database when it was added to the legislation, nor did they attempt to include it in the portion of the law they now seek to overturn. If it is truly Orwellian, why not try and overturn it?

The answer is simple: For the lenders, this is not, and never has been, about customers. It’s about greed.

Throughout this campaign, the lenders have been willing to do anything, say anything, or pay anything to get their way.

Citizens who want to get something on the ballot must submit petitions with signatures from more than 240,000 registered voters – and those petitions must contain a summary that accurately and fairly explains the law they seek to overturn. Ohio Attorney General Nancy Rogers twice rejected the lenders’ summaries because they were not “fair and truthful.’’ So they sued her.

When I complained that petition circulators hired by lenders paid residents of a Butler County homeless shelter to sign petitions – a practice banned under Ohio law, they threatened to sue me.

Ohio can’t afford to let this industry win by deceiving voters and bullying critics.

As you prepare to vote, please ask yourself these questions:

Do you think 391 percent interest is too high? Are you annoyed when one special interest parachutes into our state and buys its way onto the ballot? Do our leaders have a right to rid the marketplace of a defective product that’s harmful to Ohio?

If you answered “yes’’ to even one of these questions, please join me in voting “yes” on Issue 5.
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Faith is executive director of Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio and treasurer for Vote Yes on 5 Committee.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Ohio Forum. 10/08

COLORADO EDITORIAL FORUM

By Deirdre Bowen , J.D., Ph.D

On November 4, Coloradoans are being asked to vote on the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative which proposes, among other things, to ban affirmative action in college admissions. Make no mistake in thinking that this proposal supports equality. Passage of Amendment 46 would be a giant step backwards.

The campaign incorrectly asserts that passage of similar anti-affirmative action initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan did not end in the dire results that opponents of such bans predicted. Ask the under-represented minority students who attend schools in those states if they agree.

A recent national study I conducted of 335 high achieving under-represented minority students majoring in the hard sciences from 33 states shows grim results for those students attending schools in the aftermath of anti-affirmative action campaigns.

Asked whether they had encountered overt racism from other students, 43 percent of students who attended school in California, Washington, Michigan and Florida where affirmative action is banned said “Yes.” Less than half of that number (20 percent) of students who attend schools in states that allow for race-based admissions answered similarly. Yet, anti-affirmative action supporters argue that such policies are outdated because racial issues no longer exist in America. They also maintain that banning affirmative action will lead to equality for all students.

Why, then, are minority students, who have been admitted under the exact same criteria as other students, almost twice as likely to have their qualifications questioned (46 percent) compared to students who attend schools in states that use race based admissions (25 percent)? Anti-affirmative action proponents claim race-based admissions increases resentment. In fact, the opposite is true. Banning affirmative action leads to suspicion and doubt.

It gets worse. While 80 percent of under-represented minority students ranked their ability to succeed as high, regardless of the state in which they attend school, substantially more students in anti-affirmative action states felt pressure to succeed because of their race (74 percent) than students in affirmative action states (40 percent). In addition, 31 percent of students in anti-affirmative action states as opposed to 19 percent of students in affirmative action states felt faculty had lower expectations of them compared to non-minority students.

But those wishing to ban affirmative action want us to believe that the use of race in admissions leads minorities to think that they can’t succeed on their merits. Once again, the numbers don’t support such a claim. Minorities don’t question themselves when affirmative action is present. Instead, far more whites question minorities’ merits when affirmative action is not present.

In light of this, many more minority students in anti-affirmative action states think race based admissions are necessary for minorities to get ahead (55 percent), compared to those students attending schools in states that do allow race based admissions (32 percent). Recall, these are students who did not benefit from affirmative action policies when they applied to school. It is the treatment they endure during their four years in higher education that leads minority students to question whether they are operating on a level playing field.

It may come as no surprise then, that after enduring at least four years of increased hostility despite the absence of “racial preferences,” only 3 percent of students in states that banned affirmative action versus 21 percent of students in race-based admissions states agree with this statement: Faculty and students no longer think minorities can only get into college with the help of affirmative action.

Furthermore, 20 percent of students in affirmative action states versus 40 percent of students in anti-affirmative states plan to investigate graduate school admissions policies on race. Not because they believe they will need such policies to get admitted, but to find a less hostile learning environment.

In other words, minorities find more divisiveness on campuses without affirmative action than those with affirmative action, contrary to what supporters of Amendment 46 would like you to believe.

Affirmative action is working, but the job is not yet complete. When minority students are admitted to schools under the same meritocracy as white students, but are disproportionately encountering overt racism, disproportionately having their qualifications questioned, disproportionately feeling pressure to succeed because of their race, and disproportionately perceiving that faculty have lower expectations of them, race still matters.

We now know the effects of doing away with affirmative action. And know this: Amendment 46 is not about gaining civil rights. It is about dismantling them.
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Bowen is a professor at Seattle University School of Law. More on this study can be found in her forthcoming article Brilliant Disguise: An Empirical Analysis of the Colorblind Ideal in a Post-Affirmative Action World.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

TENNESSEE EDITORIAL FORUM

By Nell Levin

Imagine earth-shaking explosions, rock and debris flying through the air, and mountains blasted to smithereens by explosions 100 times more powerful than those that blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. When the dust settles, the remaining land looks like another planet: no trees, no plants, no animals -- just a barren moonscape.

These are the shocking images of Jeff Barrie’s documentary, "Kilowatt Ours," that prompted me to write the song, “Don’t Blow Up the Mountain.”

Although I don’t live in Appalachia, I have a great love for the culture of the mountains. I play old-time music and love the rollicking beat of a group of fiddles and banjos playing together. But who will teach these age-old fiddle tunes to the next generation if communities are forced from the mountains and figuratively and literally torn apart?

Those of us who don’t live in Appalachia may be not be aware of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal. According to the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, 450 mountains have been destroyed to date. United Mountain Defense calls this ecocide: the killing of the environment. In fact, mountaintop removal has been dubbed “strip mining on steroids.”

In order to access the thin layers of valuable low-sulfur coal buried within the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau and southern Appalachia, coal companies must destroy the surrounding wildlife and habitats.

First, the forests are cut clear: trees are cut down and the topsoil is carted away along with vegetation, destroying wildlife habitat in the process. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2,200 miles of Appalachian forest will be cleared by the year 2012.

Next, the coal companies blast off the mountaintop with explosives strong enough to crack the foundations of nearby houses. Oftentimes, the soil and rock left behind by these explosions are dumped into valleys below. In fact, coal companies have buried over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams.

Millions of gallons of waste from coal processing, called sludge or slurry, are stored in open pools. One of the worst ecological disasters in eastern United States occurred on October 11, 2000, when a coal sludge impoundment in Kentucky’s Martin County broke through an underground mine and poured 306 million gallons down the Tug Fork River. The spill polluted hundreds of miles of waterways, contaminated the water supply for over 27,000 residents, and killed all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek.

In the final step of mountaintop removal, companies bring in heavy machinery to collect the coal. As tall as 20-story buildings and weighing up to 8 million pounds, these machines make it possible for the coal companies to hire fewer workers than used in traditional underground mining. Mountaintop removal extracts two and a half times as much coal per hour than underground mines. As a result, the coal industry lost about 10,000 jobs from 1990 to 1997.

The counties that host mountaintop removal are often the poorest in Appalachia: 37 percent of the residents of McDowell County, West Virginia, which produces the most coal in the state, live in poverty. This destructive method of coal mining worsens conditions by destroying land, resources and communities, pushing these mountain residents deeper into poverty.

"Mountaintop removal mining is a callous, irresponsible, egregious method of mining coal,” says Janice A. Nease, executive director of the Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia. “It creates false prosperity — enriching the few at a great cost to large areas of Appalachian people and the environment. Southern West Virginia has become an energy sacrifice zone in the nation's quest for cheap energy.”

It’s clear that mountaintop removal is ruining our majestic natural environment and causes harsh ecological damage to our rivers and streams. It’s time to put a stop to mountaintop removal once and for all.
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Levin is the coordinator of Tennessee Alliance for Progress. Kilowatt Ours will be shown at 8 pm on 10/22 on WKNO in Memphis and at 7 pm on 10/24 on WNPT in Nashville. A video for Levin’s song “Don’t Blow Up the Mountain,” directed by Ron Ault which includes footage of the Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek destruction can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CddjKEVeos0.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 10/08

NORTH CAROLINA EDITORIAL FORUM

By Bryan Warner

Emerging from the stifling heat of Independence Hall, where the 1787 Constitutional Convention was held in a closed-door, shut-window session, a sweltering Benjamin Franklin was asked by a passing woman, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic -- if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s challenge speaks to the very foundation of our nation. If we are to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, it requires that we the people put a bit of effort into choosing those who would represent us.

With a ballot that elects more statewide officials than most other states, North Carolina voters bear that responsibility more than many of their peers. For instance, this fall we will elect nine members of the Council of State, an executive-branch body made up of officials often appointed by the governor in other states, such as the commissioners of agriculture, labor and insurance.

Research by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education has found that very few voters can name the members of the Council of State. Our polling has also shown that the No. 1 reason why registered North Carolina voters don’t cast a ballot is for lack of information on the candidates.

This year, North Carolina finds itself with a blockbuster election featuring tight races for the White House, governor’s mansion and U.S. Senate. Our newfound battleground status could drive a record number of voters to the polls, which is marvelous.

However, once their choice is made for the presidency, will voters recognize the names of those vying for the Council of State, N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals? If past elections are any guide, there could be many ballots left blank at the bottom and on back.

Franklin Roosevelt wisely observed, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people the right to vote except the American people themselves -- and the only way they could do this is by not voting.” Too often we squander our opportunity to vote for down-ballot races, even though state and local officials frequently affect our lives more profoundly than any decree from the Oval Office.

It may seem difficult for voters to learn about low-profile contests when a deafening buzz swarms the races for president, governor and senator. How can voters cut through the clutter and get the facts they need to cast a confident ballot for such contests as the Council of State, appellate courts and the state legislature?

One way that voters can prep for the polls is by visiting www.NCVoterGuide.org, an online voter guide produced in a partnership between UNC-TV and the N.C. Center for Voter Education, featuring candidate profiles and in-depth multimedia interviews with the nominees, along with voting facts and election coverage.

Voters can also watch a series of forums with candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals, along with the contenders for state auditor, commissioner of insurance and state superintendent of public instruction, airing statewide at 1 pm on Sunday, Oct. 26 on UNC-TV.

Our right to vote is a gift, sanctified by the blood of patriots from Lexington to Normandy, made sacred by the resolve of suffragists in Seneca Falls and the courage of marchers in Selma. This election, let’s show Mr. Franklin that we can keep this Republic that he and his fellow founders entrusted with us. Let’s do our homework on all the candidates and then vote the whole ballot.
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Warner is the director of communications for the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 10/08


CALIFORINA FORUM


By Kathleen Taylor

America is in the midst of an election season, nearing an Election Day with what likely will be far-reaching consequences. Public interest is extraordinarily high, and candidates are debating many critical issues. Yet we have heard little or nothing about the Constitution and its Bill of Rights – the touchstone of our individual freedoms.

The most significant words of the U.S. Constitution may be the first three: “We the people.” Not “I the King,” not “I the Grand Religious Leader,” not even “I the elected President.” Our governing structure was created by the people, and ensuring that it works for the people is a continuing legal, moral, and political journey.

All through the centuries, arguments about the Constitution’s meaning have persisted: What does it mean that only Congress can declare war? (Article I) What constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors”? (Article II) Is taking an oath of office with your hand on the Bible a “religious test”? (Article VI) Under which conditions, if any, should explicit sexual language not be considered free speech? (Amendment 1) Is a urine test for drugs an “unreasonable search”? (Amendment 4)

The remarkable characteristic of the Constitution is that it offers bedrock principles—checks and balances, procedures, freedoms, responsibilities, protections—while at the same time responding to the needs of contemporary society. It’s not an accident; the founders wrote it that way on purpose. The Constitution is our civic compass. It points the way for courts, legislatures, and executive administrations. It guides us in times of war and of peace, of boom and of bust, and of everything in-between. It keeps us on the path of fair play, equal treatment, liberty, and security.

Or it does if we’re constantly vigilant.
Over the last two centuries, through activism, dissent, and dedication, citizens have expanded the scope and depth of our liberty. And today, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” than at any time in history.

Yet, in recent years, our federal government has grown more powerful and secretive, assuming powers it does not rightfully have. Our government has:

· spied on Americans without the approval of Congress or the courts;

· allowed the CIA to torture and abuse hundreds of people, including Americans, in secret prisons throughout the world;

· held prisoners indefinitely without charge;

· placed hundreds of thousands of Americans on terrorist watch lists without an explanation or opportunity to appeal; and

· restricted the free flow of scientific information and set up barriers to the use of scientific materials.

No matter who wins the election, we must remember that the Constitution applies to everyone. It applies to the least desirable among us and to those with whom we vehemently disagree on matters of politics, religion, or ethics. That’s the tough part. We need to be vigilant for all people, not merely the ones whom society favors.

This election season is an opportunity to think about what the Constitution has given us, as well as what we ourselves can do to make sure it survives—not just in letter, but in spirit. We can consider whether what’s been going on is consistent with the Constitution. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of “Well, it’s not me; it’s that awful other person who’s being tortured/spied upon/denied an attorney/discriminated against/harassed.” Any of us could be that person in the future.

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Taylor is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08


By Patricia Cain

The proponents of Proposition 8 have unleashed an ad in which a law professor proclaims that unless marriage rights are denied to same-sex couples, churches risk losing their tax exemptions. The claim is pure nonsense and any lawyer who makes such a claim should apologize for misleading the many religious leaders and congregations in this state who, because they are not legal experts, rely on those of us who are.

Our country was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. The U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It also guarantees that an individual’s right of religious liberty is protected in every state in this country.

The California constitution provides similar guarantees. The California Supreme Court, the institution charged with construing the California constitution to ensure that it applies to all Californians equally, recognized the importance of these guarantees in its decision in the marriage cases. As the Court explained: “[A]ffording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person; no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”

There is absolutely no legal basis for the claim in the proponent’s ad that churches may lose their tax exemption. The claim is nothing more than an attempt by the opponents of equal marriage to instill fear among the religious faithful in the hopes that they will flock to the ballot box and cast a vote to protect their churches.

Citizens of California need to check their fears against what we all know about religious freedom in this country. Churches and other religious institutions are free to follow their religious tenets and to conduct whatever sacraments and services are consistent with those tenets.

Churches in Massachusetts, where marriages between same-sex partners have been performed for over four years, can and do refuse to marry same-sex couples. Not a single church has been threatened with the loss of tax-exempt status. There is no risk that they will be threatened because the IRS and state tax authorities are bound by the guarantees of religious freedom in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

When New Jersey adopted civil unions for same-sex couples in 2006, fears arose in that state that religious organizations would be forced to perform same-sex unions. On January 10, 2007, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a formal opinion concluding that religious institutions are not required to endorse or perform same-sex commitment ceremonies since they are protected by both the state and federal constitutions. The opinion cited relevant United States Supreme Court precedent. That same precedent applies in California.

Our country is strongest when the rights of all are protected. The separation of church and state is a necessary precondition for the protection of individual liberty and equality. We live in a public world full of differences of opinion and that is good. We get our strength from our private worlds where individual conscience and matters of faith reside. California’s constitution is a document that governs our public world. It should not be amended to deny the rights of some because of an unfounded fear that some voters’ religious freedoms are in jeopardy.
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Cain is the Inez Mabie Distinguished Professor of Law at Santa Clara University and past president of the Society of American Law Teachers.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Friday, October 17, 2008

Merit is More than Numbers



By Jose J. Soto and Deborah Waire Post


Most people think of affirmative action in the context of access to education. Whether we call it affirmative action or diversity, there is a widely shared belief that any process that considers race or gender in evaluating an application for admission is unfair. Actually, the reverse is true.

Those of us who support affirmative action also oppose an admissions policy that relies exclusively on numbers because we believe that a person is more than a number. Schools and testing agencies promote the use of test scores or an index created from the grade point average and the test scores to decide who is in and who is out. In the rarified world of psychometricians, a point difference on a test score may be meaningless, but in the imaginations of parents and students, "fair" means who are "first" or who has the highest number. What most parents do not know is that the game is rigged. Just as an “A” in an honors English class is worth more than an “A” in a regular English class, an “A” from an elite school is worth more than an “A” from a school farther down the educational pecking order.

A fair admissions process would evaluate our children as individuals, not as numbers. Who are they, what have they done, what might they achieve if they are given an opportunity to attend this school or university? Merit cannot be assessed in the abstract. Merit is about achievement and it is about character.

There is an old cliché: "You are where you are from." Each of us is from a place and also from a family and a community. All of these have an effect on our character. If we can refer to the way our religious beliefs shape our commitment to social justice, why can't we talk about the history of our own families and how they have struggled to overcome racial prejudice or discrimination? Is this any less relevant than the struggle of a student who grew up poor or in a home with a single parent who struggled to make ends meet? Why would we seek to erase from any consideration of character the very things that make each person unique?

If life experiences matter, then why can't we consider the obstacles that had to be overcome by a student raised on an Indian reservation, in a racially segregated neighborhood, in Appalachia, or by parents who immigrated to this country when the student was just a child?

The idea that a consideration of race and gender is a preference is an absurdity. Eliminating race and gender from consideration when we continue to examine other life experiences that applicants use to explain why they should be admitted disadvantages women and minorities. It impairs the ability of admissions officers to evaluate candidates fairly. Let's say that one applicant describes the experience he had on a sports team where he learned about team work and leadership. Could a young woman describe her experience on a woman's volleyball or soccer team without running the risk that the authors of the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative would say that she is asking for a "preference" on the basis of gender? The fact is that sports are segregated by sex and that a federal statute mandates equal funding for women's sports.

Colorado and Nebraska have affirmative action referenda on the ballot on November 4, but advocates for “colorblind” programs have threatened to eventually place similar initiatives in all 50 states. While they don't touch the federal statute, in some cases they would make a boy's discussion of sports appear "neutral," but a girl's discussion of sports would raise questions of "preference" on the basis of sex or gender. In reality, there would be no "preference" when race and gender are considered along with any number of factors that create the character of applicants to any institution of higher education. Proponents of these referenda would have you believe that is the case, but it is simply not true. The only thing these referenda would do is turn our children into ciphers and the admissions process into a numbers game.

Are your children more than a number?
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Soto, is vice president for affirmative action, equity, and diversity at Southeast Community College Area in Lincoln, NE. Post is professor of law at Touro Law Center and co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers in Central Islip, NY.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08


MISSOURI FORUM


By Cynthia Richards
As Election Day nears, it’s hard not having the new political thriller “Cassandra, Chanting” on my mind. Written by an anonymous “election world insider,” it is about a race to reveal a high-tech plan to fix the upcoming presidential election after warnings about the precariousness of electronic voting have gone unheeded.

The novel’s title is apt. Surely all of us in the election integrity movement who have been speaking out about the dangers of this technology have felt like the mythical Trojan seer. Being dismissed as half-baked lunatics goes with the territory -- no matter how well-founded our concerns are. Recently, however, many states have begun to listen, and have taken bold action to protect the vote. Unfortunately, Missouri isn’t among them.

Missourians for Honest Elections has been working to alert Missouri voters and public officials about the issues surrounding electronic voting for several years. Unlike Cassandra, we don’t have the gift of prophecy. What we have – not acquired from Apollo but through our own dogged research is the gift of facts. The following are some of the most sobering:

Computer scientists have testified that a computer code that would flip an election can be easily written and hidden within an electronic voting machine’s operating code and remain undetected. This could be done during the manufacturing of the machine, or during the creation of software “upgrades” that vendors often say are necessary after the machine has been purchased.

The federal government has never conducted a thorough review of the operating code on any of the voting equipment currently used in the state. Neither has the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, nor any local election board. Even if a rigorous study were done -- which would require permission from the vendor and take months to accomplish -- experts say that it would be next to impossible to discover vote tampering instructions in the tens of thousands of lines of code they would have to scrutinize.

It’s also important to underscore that electronic voting machines currently used in Missouri have been proven to be hackable by voters at the polls. Studies have shown that the physical security of the Sequoia Edge (used in Greene, Cole, Butler and Calloway Counties), the Diebold (now “Premier”) Accuvote TSx (used in the City of St. Louis and Kansas City), and the ES&S iVotronic (used in St. Louis County) all can be quickly and easily bypassed. Moreover, this can be accomplished without any unusual equipment that might alert a poll worker. This should alarm election officials who proudly point to physical security measures they take when the machines are not in use -- such as locked doors -- which they believe are sufficient protection.

Given such vulnerabilities, it’s imperative that we be able to audit election results. However, of the two types of machines used in Missouri -- touch-screen vote counting machines (DREs) and optical scanners -- only optical scanners allow for an audit. That’s because the DRE doesn’t provide a software-independent record of the vote. The “paper trail” on the DRE runs on the same vulnerable software as the machine itself, and voters often neglect to check it. Therefore, election officials have no way of knowing if it is correct. By contrast, with optical scan voting, election officials have recourse to paper ballots that voters have marked by hand. These can be hand-counted for a truly software-independent audit.

Recognizing the risk of using voting equipment that is both subject to tampering and produces unauditable totals, many states have decided to scrap their DREs and use optical scanners exclusively (some deploying one DRE per polling place for the disabled). It would be easy for Missouri to do this too, since we already have enough scanners throughout the state. However, officials in the “Show Me State” seem be waiting for a catastrophe to convince them to make this change.

The Secretary of State’s Elections Division is aware of the disturbing facts presented above. But its response -- to provide “further education” to election officials -- is sadly inadequate. We applaud any effort to better train those who oversee our elections, but this cannot begin to address the issue. Missouri must put a stop to the general use of DREs. There is still time before November. And if this much-needed change does not occur before the election, Missouri voters should implement it themselves en masse by using paper ballots, which will be available at every polling place throughout the state.
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Richards is a steering committee member for Missourians for Honest Elections.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 10/08

VIRGINIA FORUM

By Suzanne Petroni

We’re in the waning days of the Bush administration and the ideologues are working furiously to get in their last licks. Women, including the most underprivileged and poor in the world, are their target yet again.

A third of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. The vast majority are women and children. Many are forced into marriage at 10 or 12 years of age. Many have six to 10 children, because they have no access to education or services, and no authority to decide on sexual matters in their marriages. As a result, more than 500,000 women die each year just because they get pregnant: they gave birth too young, too old, too often, or they live too far away from any trained health care provider. And increasingly, they are becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.

Controlling one’s own reproductive decisions is important for all women, but especially for women in poor families. Birth control is a critical component in ensuring that rates of unwanted pregnancy and abortion continue to drop, and that women and their children are able to live healthy lives.

But even as the president and his colleagues prepare to pack up and leave Washington, they’ve continued to find more opportunities to take away these basic women’s rights.

Just recently, the United States Agency for International Development discontinued the provision of contraceptives to Marie Stopes International (MSI), one of the world’s leading family planning organizations. According to MSI, the decision will “seriously disrupt” family planning programs in at least six African countries – Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe - including one where the organization delivers 25 percent of all family planning services nationally. Women in these countries will be left with few options other than abortion, the majority of which will be unsafe and could very well result in their death or disability.

This is on top of the fact that for the past seven years, President Bush has blocked the congressionally approved U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA works in 140 countries to provide poor women with family planning, maternal and child health, and HIV prevention assistance. This year alone, the U.S. contribution could have helped to prevent up to 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 unsafe abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, over 77,000 infant and child deaths, and prevented countless women and men from contracting HIV/AIDS.

And of course in one of his first acts as president, Bush restored the Global Gag Rule, severely restricting groups that work in the developing world from providing much-needed family planning assistance. The move forced the closure of health clinics throughout Asia and Africa -- often the only providers of health care in their communities -- leaving millions in need.

But Bush’s apathy towards women isn’t just for those overseas.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed regulations that would deprive women of the right to make their own informed health care decisions. These regulations would allow doctors, nurses and other health care personnel to refuse to provide services that might offend their conscience. This includes not only the provision of abortion services, from which providers are already exempt under federal law, but could include contraception as well.

While we have made laudable progress in funding the fight against HIV/AIDS abroad, this progress has not been matched at home, where AIDS is now the number one killer of black women between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s not helpful that the federal government forces schools to teach programs that preach abstinence-only-until-marriage and bans discussing condoms, except to exaggerate their failure rates. Over 20 states, including Virginia, have now rejected federal abstinence-only programs, which have proven not only a complete waste of taxpayer funds, but have likely also caused harm to the students who are taught inaccurate information.

In these last few weeks of election season, Virginians should ask candidates for federal office where they stand regarding the health and welfare of vulnerable women.

Do they support the Bush policies of denying women access to contraception and providing young people with dangerous abstinence-only-until-marriage education? Or would they give women and youth the opportunity to live healthy lives and to be free to make their own educated decisions regarding their health?

The women of the world deserve better than what the Bush administration has provided, and the American people deserve wiser, more generous policies in our name.
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Petroni worked on health and women's issues at the U.S. Department of State from 1997 until 2001. She lives in Northern Virginia and manages a program at a foundation in Washington, DC, supporting comprehensive health programs for women and youth in the developing world.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Virginia Forum. 10/08

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Which Side Are You On?


WISCONSIN FORUM


By Ellen Bravo

It can happen anywhere.

Recently, I sat in a room in Milwaukee filled with people clutching Bibles and babies and spewing venom. They were visibly enraged.

Granted, there’s a lot to be angry about these days: the persistence of poverty in our community, the lack of resources for our children’s education, the number of people who can’t afford health care, the gang of hoodlums on Wall Street holding a gun to our heads, the fact that hard-working parents can be fired for staying home to care for a sick child, and the continuing number of soldiers in harm’s way.

But the object of the rage of folks surrounding me wasn’t any of these things. It was the loving, long-term, committed relationships of people who happen to love someone of the same gender.

We were at a Milwaukee school board meeting, debating a resolution to end discrimination in benefits for same-sex couples in non-bargaining unit positions – estimated to be about 1 percent of staff in those jobs. The cost isn’t very much, especially considering an earlier item on the agenda about the need to retain experienced employees. Treat people right and they’re more likely to stick around.

Opponents weren’t content with expressing disagreement with the proposal. They littered their comments with hateful remarks about real people sitting directly across the aisle or in some cases in the next chair – people who simply want to build strong families and contribute what they can to their communities and who would certainly have preferred to be spending a warm fall evening playing in the park.

Someone had convinced this group that the loving couples they targeted were responsible for the problems in our society. Somewhere along the way, making life miserable for same-sex partners had become a path to easing the misery in one's own lives.

The angry speakers in the room, apparently without exception, consider themselves to be people of faith. I doubt any of them would condone physical violence against those they railed about. But I couldn’t help thinking how much their words of hate translate every day into acts that demean, diminish and discriminate against people whose chosen (and under-paid) profession is to educate our kids.

The opponents’ words, spoken defiantly in front of their own children – girls in pinafores and boys with scrubbed faces brandishing signs – in fact create the climate that leads to more than hurtful words or daily indignities. Their speeches give permission to those who beat people and tie them to a rail to die.

Fortunately, there were a number of others in the room, teachers and parents and a sprinkling of students who’d taken time to voice their support for domestic partner benefits. Among them were three clergy, each of whom reminded the audience that whatever one’s faith, we are called upon to act justly and promote community, not divisiveness.

The proposal passed the committee by one vote. The school board member casting that vote had been wavering on which way to go. Addressing the opponents, he announced his decision: “You swayed me to vote yes.”

His position reminds us that sometimes there is no middle ground. Either we stand with those who spread hate, or we stand on the side of the most basic American values of justice, equality and fairness.

Measures like this are on the ballot in several states and are increasingly coming up in legislatures, city councils and school boards around the country.

Regardless of where it happens, we must stand together to protect justice, equality and fairness for all Americans.
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Bravo is an author and activist who teaches women’s studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Wisconsin Forum.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Selfish City Costs State

OHIO FORUM


By Mark Stewart

For the last two years, as Lorain County auditor, I have felt obligated to fight against the city of Lorain’s retroactive tax-abatement program because it’s illegal, unfair, arbitrary, and harmful to county residents and institutions. The city of Lorain has found a way to shift its tax responsibilities to the rest of the state. Now, I feel obligated to bring this program to broader attention as it threatens to harm to all Ohioans.

In 2006, Lorain’s city council amended its previous tax-abatement ordinance to begin offering 15-year, 100 percent property tax abatements on homes on the city’s west side, most of which were already built and occupied, in return for exorbitant fees averaging $7,000 per home.

Basically, new home owners can pay a one-time application fee in lieu of paying property taxes for 15 years. Good deal, right? For the city it certainly is, because the money paid to get abatement is a "fee" and not a "tax." Under this scheme the city gets its hands on a windfall that doesn't come with requirements to fund services. So that means less money provided for education. Less money provided to libraries. Less money provided to programs serving the developmentally disabled. Property taxes come with specific allocations, but this "application fee" won't. So it's a sweet deal for the city, because without those required allocations they are free to shortchange on public services.

Historically tax abatement programs are intended to encourage new development that benefits the community. A municipality offers the incentive of paying lower property taxes in return for the construction of new homes. This is a tax abatement program’s “public purpose.”

In contradiction to Ohio law, Lorain’s program fulfills no public purpose. Lorain’s program boils down to city officials selling homeowners the opportunity to avoid paying their fair share of property tax. By offering homeowners the choice between paying application fee instead of property taxes on homes that have already been built, the city of Lorain is shifting the tax burden for these properties to the public while giving the public nothing in return. Most of the abatements under this program led to no new homes and no new residents because the homes and residents were already there. The only incentive offered through these tax abatements is to encourage the homeowners to stay in homes they already occupy, without requiring any additional community benefit.

These retroactive abatements are not only illegal; they are also unfair and arbitrary. If you can offer tax abatements on homes that have already been built, how do you choose which previously built homes get tax abatements? What makes one homeowner more worthy than another to have his or her property taxes waived, while the rest of us keep paying?

In a further distortion of our tax system, the fees homeowners are charged through this program are so high that the city of Lorain will take in more revenue by waiving these taxes than it would by having the homeowners pay them. Under this program, the city gets more while the schools, libraries, community college, and programs serving the mentally handicapped and developmentally disabled receive millions of dollars less.

To make matters worse, some of the costs of Lorain’s illegal abatements will be passed on to the state. The state’s school-funding formula requires that the Ohio Department of Education make up some of the losses the affected schools would experience during current and future tax years. In other words the rest of the state will have to subsidize Lorain’s school system. So, even as it raids funds intended for other programs, the city of Lorain also enriches itself at the expense of all Ohio taxpayers.

And this is what scares me. Imagine the impact if Lorain’s program is declared legal and every municipality in Ohio follows suit. After all, what politician wouldn’t want to offer similar abatements in his or her city, while raising city revenue and shifting the cost burden elsewhere?

By itself, Lorain’s program will cost millions of dollars to the rest of Ohio’s taxpayers. It sets a bad precedent of cities shifting local tax responsibilities to the state. If this public policy disaster is allowed to spread, the costs, not just in terms of dollars but also in terms of the damage done to the principle of fair taxation, will be far more than Ohio can afford to pay.

Ohio’s county auditors are responsible for keeping their respective county’s property-tax system legal and fair. As I see it, Lorain’s tax-abatement scheme is neither.

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Stewart is Lorain County Auditor.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Ohio Forum. 10/08


By Cristina Page

Now that the national attention on Bristol Palin's pregnancy is fading (for the time being) it seems the only discussion it inspired was about John McCain's vetting process and, by extension, his decision-making abilities. But there is another far more important subject raised by the 17-year-old's pregnancy. For decades, teen pregnancy has been viewed as a problem, a danger to the children of young mothers and a hurdle to the success of the adolescent mothers.

But recent public displays of contraceptive failure by girls of visibility and means gives the misleading appearance that teen motherhood might be a lifestyle upgrade. Clearly one of the exacerbating factors is that someone like Bristol Palin is part of what feels like a growing trend: the normalizing of teen pregnancy and teen motherhood in the United States. Bristol is not alone in suggesting that to be a 17-year-old mother is not only acceptable, but exciting. Last year Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney's then 16-year-old sister, had her baby. (The Spears', it's worth noting, were proponents of abstinence-only too.) Last year also featured the movie Juno, in which star Ellen Page played a 16-year-old whose quick-wit and sarcasm made her unwanted pregnancy seem as challenging as a bad case of acne. The attention garnered by each of these girls stripped away layers of what had for years been cautions against this very fate.

None of these occasions has prompted examination of the risks and damage caused by teen pregnancy and teen motherhood. And, it should be noted, recent data show that the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S., which is already the highest in the developed world, is on the rise. The last year witnessed a dramatic 3 percent spike in the number of pubescent parents.

Of course, Bristol, Juno and Jamie Lynn don't exemplify the average American girl confronting unintended pregnancy. And the problem is the average American teen doesn't really know that. The choice the fictional character Juno made, adoption, is almost a fiction these days too. Approximately 1 percent of pregnant teens opt to give a child up for adoption. And then Jamie Lynn Spears is a teen millionaire. Her pregnancy only enhanced her fortune. The first photos of her baby fetched a million dollars. The spotlight on Bristol Palin offers false comfort too. Bristol has resources available to her that none of her pregnant teen counterparts does -- like the secret service, the ultimate nanny.

The average teen girl would be led to believe that teen pregnancy doesn't ruin adolescence, but instead brings lavish amounts of attention, an adoring and adorable teen father, and an endless supply of parental support. The reality for most teen moms could not be more different.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, eight in 10 teen fathers do not marry the mother of their first child. Kids without involved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and two to three times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems. Children who live apart from their fathers are also five times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home.

Teen mothers, typically left to go it alone, are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job -- in fact, parenthood is the leading cause of school drop out among teen girls. College then becomes the remotest of possibilities. Less than two percent of mothers who have children before age 18 complete college by the age of 30.

Too often heartbreaking sacrifices are also foisted on the child of a teenage mom. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely at low birthweight compared to children of older mothers, which raises the probability of infant death and disease, mental retardation, and mental illness. Children of teen mothers are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to complete high school. The children of teen parents also suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect (two times higher).

Teen girls and their children are not the only ones paying dearly. Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers (federal, state, and local) approximately $9.1 billion each year. Most of the costs are associated with services to address the negative consequences detailed above.

The issue of teen pregnancy needs to be taken seriously and there's no better time than an election year to demand that.

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Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for BirthControlWatch.org.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Monday, October 6, 2008

Securing a Greener Future for Kentucky


KENTUCKY FORUM


By Doug Doerrfeld

Sweden recently set on a path to become the world’s first “oil-free economy” within 15 years by replacing all fossil fuels with renewables. As a result, entrepreneurs rushed to develop new ways of generating energy from the wind, sun and tides, from wood chips, agricultural waste, and garbage. Economic growth rates climbed. We learned that when nations "decarbonizes," their economies reap immediate rewards.

In recent weeks we’ve heard significant announcements in solar breakthroughs, from gigantic generating plants to new ways to store solar energy. We are on the threshold of the day when nearly every Kentucky home and business could be generating electricity and hot water.

With technology changing so fast, with renewable energy poised to deliver significant levels of power on a cost-competitive basis, Gov. Steve Beshear was right to ask the Energy Cabinet to develop a new comprehensive energy plan. Though Kentucky’s current plan is just a few years old, it relies heavily on coal and does more to reinforce old power (both energy production and the politically entrenched) than to transform our economy.

A good plan will not only cleanly generate the energy needed to meet the needs of Kentuckians, it will also improve our quality of life. "With good policies and strong investments that prepare people who most need work for the work that most needs to be done, green jobs can fight poverty and global warming pollution at the same time," a University of Massachusetts report pointed out.

Kentuckians For The Commonwealth offers three standards by which we will judge a new energy plan.

First, it must do no more harm and work to stop the harm now being done. The same week Gov. Beshear asked for a new energy plan the city of Louisville issued several air quality alerts. These air-borne toxins hurt people and put some in the hospital. Rural areas are also hardly immune to these dangers. Mammoth Cave is the fifth most polluted national park, largely because of coal power plants in western Kentucky.

On the other end of the coal cycle, more mining with the continued lack of effective enforcement of mining laws means unabated destruction of mountains, forests and streams. More coal might feed the frenzy for short-term energy, but do so at the cost of our ecological health and economic well-being. The state ignores its own Division of Water reports about the degradation of water quality resulting from radical strip mining and continues allowing the intentional destruction of streams -- another example that the “energy at any cost” mentality still rules in the state capitol.

Second, any plan must make sure affordable energy remains accessible to all Kentuckians. Kentucky’s past and present dependence on coal for electricity in a carbon constrained future looms as a menacing financial and environmental liability. New coal plants are expensive and will continue the upward spiral of electricity rates. Experimental coal sequestration technology, decades away, could increase the cost of electricity another 50 to 80 percent. Clearly, this path is making electricity less accessible to lower income families and creating a burden for small businesses.

Energy accessibility and security demand that we look toward sources that provide the greatest price and supply stability.

Third, we must take advantage of the growing green economy or we face being left behind. A recent Apollo Alliance report showed that investment in a clean and efficient economy would "lead to over 3 million new green-collar jobs, stimulate $1.4 trillion in new GDP, add billions in personal income and retail sales, produce $284 billion in net energy savings, all while generating sufficient returns to the U.S. treasury to pay for itself over 10 years." How much of this will Kentucky capture, or will it go to other states while we’re still mired in old dirty power?

The state currently offers only $76 million in incentives to Integrity Manufacturing for 1,000 new jobs building electric cars compared to $250 million to Peabody Energy to create 500 coal gasification jobs. This may be circumstantial, but it is a clear indication of how our priorities must change.

Visionary leadership will see this moment as an opportunity to move Kentucky into the future that we have the power to create. But it will require breaking away from the old mindsets, the old political alliances and fossil-fuel submission. We have no time to waste.
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Doerrfeld is the chairperson of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Kentucky Forum. 10/08

TEXAS LONE STAR FORUM
By Rebecca Lightsey

The excitement and optimism that accompany a new school year can fade quickly when a disciplinary problem surfaces at school.

School discipline is a serious matter -- particularly when it means that a student will be removed from the regular classroom for a long period of time, or when the court becomes involved.

It is serious for the student, whose permanent school or court record may be affected; it is serious for the parent, who must make sure that behavior problems are not undermining their child’s capacity to learn and that the school is applying discipline appropriately and equitably; and serious for the school, which must maintain a safe learning environment while constantly evaluating the long-term impacts of its disciplinary policies.

Texas Appleseed has researched the impact of school discipline as part of a larger School-to-Prison Pipeline project and found that:

• Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, where students are sent for an average of 30 to 40 days for misbehavior, have five times the dropout rate of mainstream schools.
• African-American students and special education students are significantly overrepresented in discretionary disciplinary referrals -- sometimes at rates three or four times their representation in the overall school population.
• Where a child attends school -- and not the nature of the offense -- is the greatest predictor of a student’s receiving a disciplinary referral.

Studies show that there are fewer disciplinary referrals and fewer incidents of violence in schools where parents are involved. Here are a few steps that parents can take to stay involved.
Make sure your child understands behavior expectations at school outlined in the Student Code of Conduct -- and what can happen if he or she breaks the rules. The state requires that schools discipline students for serious misbehavior (such as aggravated assault or bringing drugs or a weapon to school), however schools have discretion to discipline for other problem behaviors listed in the Student Code of Conduct.

Find out if your school practices “zero tolerance.” Serious misbehaviors cannot be tolerated if they undermine school safety and students’ ability to learn. However, some schools adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to any infraction. It is important that Student Codes of Conduct specify that intent, self-defense, and disciplinary history be considered in decisions to discipline a student. Parents can urge schools to adopt disciplinary policies that take these factors into account.
Remember that due process counts. You have a right to be informed in a timely manner when your child is suspended, expelled or referred to an alternative school --and you and your child must be given an opportunity to present your side at a school conference or disciplinary hearing. If you have been given a reasonable opportunity to participate, the school can hold a disciplinary hearing without you.

Neither behavior problems nor disciplinary action should derail a child’s education. Parents should work with the school and the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program to ensure that students assigned to alternative schools do not fall behind and consider dropping out.

Individual Education Plans (IEP) must be followed for special education students. Make sure that failure to follow an IEP did not cause or exacerbate your child’s behavior problems -- and that any alternative placement does not jeopardize your child’s education or emotional health.
Keep track of fines, community service and/or court dates if your child is ticketed or arrested at school. Failure to comply fully can result in additional fines or impact your child’s court record.

Throughout the disciplinary process, it is important to remain calm and open-minded and to communicate with the school. Ultimately, a child in trouble learns most from observing how the important adults in his or her life -- both at home and at school -- handle these kinds of challenges.
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Lightsey is executive director of Texas Appleseed
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Copyright (C) 2008 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 9/08