Education: Teachers voices drowned out

Judy Ferro    [Published in the Idaho-Press Tribune on June 16, 2014]

Before the May vote, Sharon Fisher of Kuna posted a Facebook status urging voters to support the Kuna school levy.  One of the negative responses advised readers to ignore her arguments because she just wanted to keep her job.

I chuckled a bit because Sharon is not a Kuna teacher.  She is a computer journalist who writes pieces I can’t understand for e-zines like “IT Knowledge Exchange” and “Software Quality Connection.”  She is not a teacher, but an honest-to-goodness concerned parent.

I thought of that exchange recently when I saw a headline asking why teachers don’t speak out.  Well, some must, or a man reading Sharon’s support for schools wouldn’t have assumed she was a teacher.   Idahoans have seen teachers lead a massive fight against Luna Laws designed to replace teachers with computers and siphon school funds to out-of-state corporations.

Yet, teachers aren’t a major factor in most of today’s big education decisions.

For one thing, teachers feel that parents, kids and communities have as big a stake in the schools as they do.  Years ago, when funding for Seattle’s Highline School District was cut 40%, the school board voted to keep varsity sports while sacrificing programs needed for accreditation.  When members of the education association suggested that its members refuse to coach, one young man objected, “The people of this district have chosen to let their kids go down the drain…”

Teachers know they don’t have the power to make everything right.

Moreover, teachers maneuver through some very political territory.   If the school board decrees that “90% of our students will perform above the 50th percentile,” they must nod without a snicker.  (Percentile benchmarks are revised whenever 50% don’t fall below the 50th percentile.)

And when it comes to Common Core, teachers are as divided as the general public.  Many are happy to see higher level skills emphasized and a wide range of activities and resources shared on-line.  Others have seen so many new programs come and go that they question the need for a new one.

A number of teachers object to the time and money required for testing and technology.    Many believe they are hurtful.  They tell of kids frightened to tears or totally discouraged when a year of hard work doesn’t bring them up to passing.

And teachers are often disgusted with legislators and others who think just having some high-priced test will accelerate learning.   What accelerates learning is engaging students so they enjoy working—and that means allowing them choices and creativity.  For most people, standardized and motivated don’t apply to the same activities.

And the testing is designed to judge our public schools and our teachers.  The idea that a kid can improve 1.5 grades in a school year and still be classified as failing is all wrong.  It means that kids who come to first grade with good vocabularies and basic math skills will always be a step or two ahead.  Why not rate kids on the current year’s gains?  Scoring could tell reflect each student’s progress rather than his position in the pack..

Teachers are speaking out on these issues, but few are listening.  Money drives the national dialogue.   Those who speak for more high tech and testing, like Michelle Rhee, may see every word amplified across the nation.  But the voices of educators across the nation who want to really put kids first are drowned out in the push for testing, standardization and accountability—methods designed to increase control and profit, not learning.

Poverty: Homeless in Reno

Judy Ferro     [Published by the Idaho Press-Tribune on June 9, 2014]

A few months after my husband closed his repair business, he ran away from home.

It wasn’t a vacation—Bill would have taken his pickup and fishing rods on a vacation.  No, he wanted to prove he could live on the road like he had thirty years earlier, before he’d had a wife and kids.

So he took $100 in cash and went hitchhiking on HiWay 55.

A few weeks later a guy hired Bill to drive a truck from Reno to Salt Lake and then added an unpaid detour to Caldwell to pick up a horse trailer.  Bill took that as a sign he was meant to come home.

And he’d already learned how hard it was to become one of America’s working poor.

In Reno, he‘d found a group of homeless men who, like himself, were able and willing to work.  They used a Reno park as their base.  After dark the cops periodically rounded them up and drove them to a truck stop on the edge of town.  Then the men couldn’t make it to a day labor site while the hiring was going on, but most would find their way back into the park by dusk.

Bill managed to befriend a man who had a car.  It didn’t run, but if the police started a roundup Bill could squeeze into the car.  The cops didn’t bother people with a car.

Two things still made it hard for the men to get steady work.   City buses stopped a couple miles short of the industrial area where the jobs were, and lockers where the homeless could stow their gear didn’t open until 10 a.m.  Getting cleaned up and on the bus was possible.  Walking the two miles beyond the bus line was possible.  Disguising the fact you were carrying a sleep sack and all the clothes you owned was not.

One of the men, a skilled carpenter, faced a third hurdle—finding a place for his five-year-old daughter while he was working.  Food stamps he could get, but no advance for child care.

So I wasn’t surprised to read recently that cutting off unemployment payments to the long-term unemployed had not reduced their numbers.  Such a move could only have made desperate people more desperate.  For those who can’t afford to wash clothes, to get fillings or dentures, and to have reliable transportation, finding and keeping a steady job is a bigger challenge than most can manage.  And that’s before depression and anxiety take their toll.

Americans fear that if benefit levels are ever high enough to provide decent transportation, food, housing, and medical care, no one would go to work.  People, we are sure, are naturally lazy.  A recent report, however, suggests we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A recent study of the 34 OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) found that countries that pay the highest benefits to the unemployed tend to have the most people employed.

How can that be?  Why don’t their citizens just stay in the air conditioning, eat bon-bons and watch TV?  Could more available jobs, a more cooperative spirit, better education, and good working conditions explain such a difference?

Whatever, the United States has been exceptionally slow in regaining jobs lost in the economic turn down.  Ten years ago our employment rate for workers aged 25-54 was 9th best out of the 34 OEDC countries.

In 2012, the U.S. was 24th.  Only Ireland, Greece and Portugal have fallen more.  Not only has France outdone us, Slovenia has.

We still have a few things to learn about maintaining a healthy economy.

Politics: Republican primaries

by Judy Ferro

Gotta love Idaho politics. Primaries are behind us, and now Republican factions are arguing over who won.

Butch Otter can claim victory because he actually won the Republican nomination for governor.

But Russ Fulcher is also claiming victory for his anti-Obamacare, anti-Feds, anti-public schools faction.   Getting 46% of the vote against an incumbent in a state-wide race proves that they are gaining strength. Why, he even won in Ada and Canyon counties.

A look at other races, however, leave that claim in doubt. To start with, the Fulcher-faction didn’t win a legislative race against an incumbent in either Ada or Canyon. Statewide, six Republican legislators were defeated, three losing to challengers on the right and three to challengers from the center.

So Democrats look at Fulcher’s near-victory and suspect there is a growing anybody-but-Butch sentiment in the counties where Otter is most at home. This is a governor, after all, who has given us one expensive scandal after another—the broadband contract the Feds believe is illegal, the fraud and ill-run prisons with Corrections Corporation of America, the favorable tax rates reserved for cronies, and the wrongful termination lawsuit in the Transportation Department among others.

This could mean victory in November for Democrat A.J. Balukoff. A.J. has a stronger business history. He started out a pauper and made big bucks without marrying anyone’s daughter. Moreover, he’s served 14 years on the Boise School Board and opposed the Luna Laws. And it shouldn’t hurt that he graduated from BYU-Idaho.   He hasn’t won—or entered—any tight jeans contests and he won’t have that R by his name, but he would make the better Governor.

Unfortunately, the Fulcher-faction did win one statewide race—Lawerence Denney got 36% of the vote to win the four-way race for Republican nominee for Secretary of State. Remember Denney? As majority leader, he kicked out committee chairs who dared to oppose him on anything. He also used donations from fellow Republican legislators to fund their ultra-right opponents. And wasn’t he a major force behind the closed Republican primary?

So the question is did Denny win because his name was the most familiar or do voters really want to see his hard-core partisanship governing our state elections?

Are Idahoans so determined to vote for a Republican that they will risk getting Florida-style elections with purges of the registration rolls, restricted early voting and long waiting lines in precincts that don’t vote right?

The Democrat alternative is a relative unknown—Boise businesswoman and one-term Representative Holli Woodings. But she shares outgoing Secretary Ben Ysursa’s serious commitment to honest elections. Hopefully, that’s what Idahoans want.

The Democrats have other strong contenders for statewide races. Boise lawyer Nels Mitchell would work harder and smarter than Senator “Vote-no” Risch. Retired teacher and seven-term legislator Shirley Ringo has twice the smarts and twice the personality of Representative Labrador. Democrat Jana Jones worked in the Department of Education under Republicans Jerry Evans and Anne Fox as well as Democrat Marilyn Howard. Her opponent is relatively unknown even among Republicans. And Twin Falls CPA Deborah Silver would actually understand what is happening in the Treasurer’s office.

No, I’m not willing to admit that a primary closed to two-thirds of Canyon County voters has decided the statewide races. People are becoming aware that one-party rule has given us corruption and cronyism as well as a poor-paying jobs and a stagnant economy. Republicans are increasingly focused on the internal fight among factions rather than the well-being of Idaho.

There will always be voters who blindly vote the R by the name. Concerned citizens, however, will be voting for some Democrats this fall.

LGBT: Acceptance in Idaho

by Judy Ferro


Judge Candy Dale’s decision in favor of LGBT marriage in Idaho brought a sadness that I hadn’t anticipated.

I remembered how naïve I was about gays in high school—and the three closeted friends that were among the first to die from Aids. They had teased me about being a Mormon who just didn’t know it, shared jokes when I felt down, and shared dreams of becoming missionaries in South America.

I had known about gays—Caldwell’s debate coach was arrested while we were at state tournament in Pocatello—but I hadn’t known much.

Now I remember families I’ve seen torn apart by failure to accept a gay member. One friend’s parents were supportive only until he found a partner; they had assumed he had chosen abstinance. A friend in Nampa has been with her partner for 22 years and yet her siblings are still angry.

I don’t understand the depth of hate involved. At home I was raised to respect people’s differences and at church I learned of a loving God who directed that we love our neighbors and restrain from judging others.

I mourn the wasted energy as people try to help our country by doing and saying hateful things about gays and lesbians –as though democracy can survive only with people who think exactly as they do. If we all thought alike, any government would be fine—it’s our differences that make democracy the blessing that it is.

Fortunately, some memories make me feel good.

Down-to-earth Idaho families simply ignored a former student and her girlfriend holding hands across a table in the Sunday morning crush at Say You, Say Me restaurant. No one seemed to see their happiness as a threat.

And a devout Christian, who had warned me that he was anti-gay when I recruited him as a candidate in 2008, has since become a supporter of gay marriage. Working on projects with couples who’ve been together 20 and 30 years has that affect on people.

Back in the 1970s, Carol and Ron Blakley, upon learning their son was gay, worked to start a LGBT-friendly congregation in Boise.   It was hard enough, Carol told me, to accept their son being gay. If he’d rejected their religious beliefs, it would have hurt much too much.

And I smile remembering when my good friend Lane Thomas came out as gay. Lane had been the children’s teacher for Snake Basin Drama and taught our girls to juggle so young that managing one ball was a struggle.   Soon my husband Bill was helping SBD with lights and sound—and even acting. We met several of Lane’s girlfriends and, occasionally, double-dated.

Later, Lane started a graphic design business in Caldwell that was quite successful.   My husband Bill was at Lane’s office in 1996 or so when a Press-Tribune photographer came to his picture.

The Idaho legislature had been debating a bill that would forbid schools and libraries from purchasing any materials that encouraged acceptance of the gay lifestyle. In a letter-to-the-editor in opposition, Lane had revealed he was gay. The paper wanted an interview.

When Lane’s picture ran across the front page the next day, Bill and I were worried for his personal safety as well as for his business.

Soon, Newsweek contacted Lane hoping to do a story on what he’d gone through. Lane mentioned that friends had sent balloons and candy, but, no, he hadn’t gotten hate mail or phone calls.   The magazine ended up doing a story about a lesbian couple in the South instead.

It didn’t even mention Lane’s acceptance in Idaho.

I was so proud of my state then. I still am.

Taxes: Cutting Too Much

by Judy Ferro

You know if you cut down calories and exercise a little bit, you can lose weight.   But you should also know that if you cut calories and exercise a whole lot, you can mess your whole system up.

For 30 years Republicans have said that the best way—maybe the only way—for the government to create jobs and prosperity is to cut taxes. At first, Republicans—including both Reagan and Bush the First—sought to find the proper balance by following major tax cuts with needed tax increases.

But in the years since cutting taxes has become more than a means to a healthy economy, but a goal in itself. Vote for me. I’ll cut taxes. My opponent says he’ll but taxes? Well, I’ll cut more.

When Republican leaders find the economy sluggish and government faltering after one tax cut, they seek to fix things with another tax cut.

Late in 2012 Republicans in Kansas—home of the Koch brothers—cut taxes 25% for most of the state’s citizens.   Nothing halfway for Kansas. So schools and state pensions are underfunded. We obviously need the biggest, baddest tax cut ever.

Forbes magazine praised Kansas Republicans for their boldness and predicted massive job growth.   As recently as March 10, Governor Brownback was on FOX news telling the nation about the wonders taking place in Kansas

Then the May 1 report from the Kansas Department of Revenue revealed that tax income was down 45% from a year earlier. The state is on track to collect $1.3 billion less this fiscal year. That’s right—tax revenue down a whole lot more than the 25% cut. The economy is slowing.

Moody’s cut Kansas’s credit rating. Governor Brownback went on FOX news to explain that it was Obama’s fault. Then the legislature got to work—debating another tax cut. After all, it’s an election year.

And neighboring Missouri, faced with the prospect of all their businesses racing to take advantage of lower taxes in Kansas, passed their own tax cut over Governor Nixon’s veto. Republicans there will go into the campaign season claiming their cut—moderate compared to Kansas–will only lower revenues $420 million a year.

If it didn’t mean kids packed like sardines into classrooms, drivers facing hazardous road conditions, and the mentally and physically disabled citizens being dumped in the streets, it’d be a laugh. Abbott and Costello go to Kansas.

A recent Idaho poll indicated that voters believe Republicans are better at managing the economy.

That really hurts.

Idaho has a median income just half of what’s considered a living wage. It has more people using payday loans even though interest rates here can be up to 400%. It has the second highest number of people working for minimum wage, and 75% of our citizens qualify for subsidized health care.

Idaho has one of the lowest tax rates in the nation.

A new report out this week indicates that there is no correlation between average wages and tax rates. But researchers found a direct correlation between the percent of a state’s workers with college degrees and average wages.

Idaho has been shorting higher education for years and only four states made higher cuts after 2008.

What a surprise. Higher education and higher wages go hand-in-hand. The economy must be a liberal.

If we want more good-wage jobs, we should postpone cutting taxes and take care of our schools.