Vote for us! An analysis of the major issues and races affecting families
No Child Left Behind
The 6-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, a test-based education law, is not inspiring confidence in our public schools. According to Harvard University’s recent Education Next survey (which included a large sampling of teachers), half of the public wants to keep the NCLB as is or with minor changes, while the other half wants to overhaul or dismantle it. NCLB, which emphasizes school accountability and greater flexibility in choosing a school, has dropped from a 57 percent “favorable” public rating in 2007 to 50 percent in 2008. If, however, the sampling was composed of teachers only, the support percentage would plummet to 26 percent. Indeed, most teachers have had it with NCLB, if they ever supported it in the first place.
Several school districts have sued the federal government, saying NCLB has required them to pay for testing and other programs without providing sufficient federal funds. In other words, the government is ordering pie-in-the-sky improvement goals, but providing no money to achieve them. Critics also lament the law’s rigidity when it penalizes schools for not improving in all areas. Since the law was passed, Washington schools’ test scores have fared slightly better than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But some give the credit for that improvement to Gov. Christine Gregoire’s education policies, not NCLB.
Where might our main political parties fall on NCLB? According to the Education Next survey, respondents believe Democrats are “more likely to improve the nation’s schools.” Sixty-one percent of respondents rate the Democrats’ record on education more favorably, and 62 percent think them more likely to improve the public schools. Teachers prefer the Democrats on education by even larger margins.
Family planning and the presidential contenders
You’re either pro-choice or pro-life and ne’er the twain shall meet. But we can agree the next president will influence reproductive rights for at least the next four years. In the so-called “Compassion Forum,” held on Aug. 16 of this year at a California megachurch, John McCain and Barack Obama shared their contrasting views on abortion. Sen. McCain stated flatly that life begins at conception; Sen. Obama reiterated his support of abortion rights. Obama said he would limit late-stage abortions, unless the mother’s health was in danger.
Most observers believe that should he win the White House, McCain would continue President Bush’s conservative makeover of the Supreme Court. Bush’s two appointees, Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts, showed their hands in a 2007 ruling upholding a law that bans a type of late-term abortion. They were the deciding votes in the 5-4 decision, which may indicate the court’s desire to revisit the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Adding Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket underscores McCain’s anti-choice position. Palin is pro-life, a member of Feminists for Life, and opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Obama and Biden, by contrast, fully support Roe v. Wade — their Senate voting records are solidly pro-family, pro-choice. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, Sen. Obama voted to fund teen-pregnancy prevention programs and co-sponsored the Prevention First Act, which contains a suite of family-planning services, including making sure health plans cover birth control pills. In contrast, McCain voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and the Teen Pregnancy Education Amendment, both of which Obama supported.
Family Medical Leave Act
The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. Instead, we have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), on the books since 1993. FMLA allows you to take time off from work (without fear of losing your job) to care for ill or newborn family members. But FMLA isn’t widespread: Forty percent of the workforce — including part-timers and millions of people employed by businesses with fewer than 50 employees — aren’t covered by FMLA. Despite surveys showing Americans’ overwhelming support of FMLA, Republicans have resisted measures to expand the act’s provisions. But that’s changing with the Democratic Congress, which has introduced at least 13 work-and-family bills. Proposals include:
- Lowering the company size threshold from 50 employees to 15.
- Providing funding for child care and after-school programs.
- Provide 12 weeks of paid FMLA benefits. (Washington is one of only three states to provide paid parental leave.)
- Extending FMLA benefits to part-time workers.
- Expansion of FMLA’s definition of “family” to include parents-in-law, siblings, grandparents, adult children and domestic partners.
- Requiring employers to consider employee requests for flexible work scheduling.
Of course, most of these proposals are already law in many industrialized nations. The current FMLA terms and conditions were written in the early ‘90s, before most people considered the work/life balance, and before the flexibility offered by laptops, remote workstations and BlackBerrys was available.
Gov. Christine Gregoire: Fired up about education
Shortly after her inauguration, Gov. Gregoire created Washington Learns, a cabinet-level steering committee charged with transforming Washington’s entire education system. “She has been, from the outset, a very strong champion for improving our education system,” says Lisa Macfarlane, cofounder of the League of Education Voters. “There’s an investment in education: She’s started to roll up her sleeves and work on these problems,” problems such as closing education gaps — the preparation gap, the achievement gap, the opportunity gap — and making school relevant to children.
Over 18 months, Washington Learns conducted a wholesale review of Washington’s education system. From that came a 2005 interim report and 2006 final report, both of which produced significant results for our schools. These include funding to help high school students achieve graduation standards, expansion of all-day kindergarten, and programs to ensure better math and science teaching and learning. And while Olympia is constitutionally mandated to consider only K–12 education, Washington Learns went further by recognizing children’s (and parents’) huge dependence on pre-K learning. “Early investments pay the highest dividends,” says Jon Gould, deputy director of Washington’s Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy group for children. “We know that about half of Washington children don’t enter kindergarten ready to succeed and if they start behind, they often stay behind.” Washington Learns also included some provisions for post-high-school learning; Gregoire’s approach to education is by most accounts remarkably comprehensive.
Washington Learns created a blueprint; now we need to pay for it. Hence the creation of the Basic Education Task Force, charged with modernizing the state’s education finance system, last modified sometime during Reagan’s first term. Like a spreadsheet from my college days, the formulas need updating. So does the definition of “basic education.” Who knows? The money might already be there, hidden in cell AZ1021. The task force is scheduled to complete its work this year.
Children’s Alliance listed Gov. Gregoire as a “Champion for Children” from the 2007 legislative session, noting her devotion to early childhood education and other children’s issues. And she’s a “priority candidate” for the League of Education Voters, who favors Gregoire over opponent Dino Rossi. Says Macfarlane: “[Rossi] hasn’t done anything in the last four years that would distinguish himself as an education champion and she has; you don’t want to get between her and where she’s trying to go.”
For his part, Rossi says that Washington Learns has been ineffective. He wants to replace the WASL with a new standardized test he says has clearer standards. He also promises not to cut education funding from its current level. Another difference between the candidates? Gregoire opposes teaching abstinence-only sex education and creationism in schools. Rossi believes local school districts should be allowed to decide whether to teach either or both.
Rep. Ruth Kagi: A ‘Champion for Children’
Rep. Kagi, a Democrat for the 32nd District, is a fixture on the Children’s Alliance’s “Champions for Children” list. She is the chair of the Early Learning & Children’s Services Committee and a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. In 2007, Kagi was the primary sponsor of a bill that supported early learning and parenting-education opportunities at community colleges. She was also a leader in passing a major early learning bill. She also helped ensure big gains in preschool programs, funding for a child-care quality rating system, and home-visiting programs. Rep. Kagi was on the Children’s Alliance’s short list again following the 2008 legislative session, following her work on behalf of foster children. Despite a grim economic outlook and tight funding, Kagi helped secure more than $9 million for Washington’s foster kids. She was also the primary sponsor of a bill that provided educational services to hearing-impaired children. Honored by the Washington State Association of Head Start & Early Childhood Education Programs and the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect, Rep. Kagi is a powerful voice for Washington’s children.
Speaker of the House Frank Chopp: Leading the way for children’s health care
House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43rd District) has worked tirelessly to bring health-care coverage to Washington’s children. His efforts bore fruit in 2007 with the passage of Senate Bill 5093, a comprehensive health-care coverage law. The bill sets requirements for everything from immunization schedules to healthful food and beverages in schools. It’s a complex and wide-ranging bill that Speaker Chopp guided through the Legislature, garnering bipartisan support. With its passage, Washington became a national leader in health care for children. The 2008 legislative session was hampered by budget tightening, but Speaker Chopp (along with Rep. Kagi; see above) secured $9 million for foster kids, which will help these children receive regular, frequent visits from siblings and caseworkers. Both the League of Education Voters and the Children’s Alliance of Washington give props to Chopp for his dogged and effective leadership on behalf of our children.
Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson: Taking toxic toys
Credit Rep. Dickerson (D-36th District) with tackling the lightning-rod issue of toxic toys. She was the sponsor of the Children’s Safe Products Act, which will protect children from lead, cadmium and phthalates in bottles, toys, clothing and scores of other dry goods. Lead is a neurotoxin; cadmium is a carcinogen and kidney toxin. They, along with phthalates, have been linked to birth defects, impaired learning and cancer. The new law aims to provide advisory labels on products containing these suspect ingredients and, eventually, to prohibit their manufacture and sale in Washington state. Of course, plenty of sources claim these heavy metals and plasticizers are perfectly harmless to living humans. But Dickerson, the founder of Treehouse and former board member for Children’s Alliance, clearly has our children’s health and safety in mind.
Four Priorities for Kids
“Early investments pay the highest dividends,” says Gould of the Children’s Alliance. “We try to take a prevention approach toward children’s lives, rather than a remediation approach.”
According to Gould, the alliance’s top four priorities for the near future are:
- Health care for every child and attaining the bipartisan goal of coverage for all children by 2010.
- Ending childhood hunger in Washington by ensuring that every child has three nutritious meals every day.
- Reforming the foster care system to improve outcomes for all children and end disparities faced by children of color.
- High-quality early learning opportunities and choices for parents, so that all children are prepared for success in school and in life.
Still, there’s plenty more to do. “It’s also true that we are a multi-issue organization that’s looking after the well-being of children,” says Gould. “So we have to do more than just these four issues — we have to respond to other people’s policy ideas or even promote our own outside of those four.”
This election season, the Children’s Alliance is working to involve children’s advocates in the election process. “We will be helping people go to candidate forums with questions to ask,” says Gould. “One of the reasons why people don’t participate as much is they don’t know what to ask. We like to get concrete: Do you support health coverage for every child in the state? Will you help create quality child care in every community in Washington state?” In addition to preparing questions, Children’s Alliance will provide information about how to interface with the candidates. For more information, or to read the alliance’s “legislative scorecard,” which reports votes cast by state legislators on children’s issues, go to www.childrensalliance.org.
Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.
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