Lefty Parent 2010 Year in Review

As I continue to try and broaden my writing skills I occasionally try my hand at a different sort of content than my typical essay featuring a personal experience that I link to what I see as a broader trend, straight out rant, or a wrestling with ideas I’ve encountered in a book or article I read. Like recently I did a piece trying to capture the zeitgeist of the moment in US education as reflected in a selection of recent articles in Education Week magazine and the Public Education Network weekly e-blast (which was a challenge and tons of work and something I’d do again but not all the time).

Today I’m going to try my hand at another genre of short essay, the end-of-year year-in-review type piece, calling out some highlights or trends from the year past. Given that, I won’t even attempt to be comprehensive, other than scoping my piece on the items from 2010 that I’ll be curious to see play out going forward in 2011 and beyond. Here goes… wish me luck!

The first is health care (or really health insurance) reform. This topic is particularly poignant for me due to my emergency neurosurgery in February (for a subdural hematoma) which, if I had not had health insurance coverage (mine with Kaiser Permanente), probably would have saddled us with enough medical bills to put us in a very deep financial hole.

Though a majority of the country (left and right) criticized the compromise legislation hashed out by Congressional Democrats, my hat goes off to them and to the Obama administration for actually taking an initial huge step towards universal coverage. Unlike the Clinton administration plan in 1994, this plan had the majority of the health insurance industry on board at least to some degree. Yes I would prefer a “public option” or even single payer, but given that we have a mostly for-profit health care financing industry, I thought this was a stunning step forward in a more egalitarian direction toward universal health care as part of our shared “commons”.

Given that there are an array of obstacles and countervailing forces ahead that could dismantle the effort, it is stunning that the insurance industry, which has fought federal regulation for decades, finally agreed to a significant regulatory guidance from Washington in exchange for mandates that everyone buy coverage (or receive it via Medicaid). Whether you think that’s a good thing or not, it is certainly a milestone in the history of the industry.

And whether this hybrid “free market with mandates” solution in its current form will actually work to control costs and move us to near universal coverage, I am highly doubtful. But my hope is that it has created enough momentum, enough expectation, that there is no going back, no stopping this train that has left the station. Hopefully where the legislation fails to deliver, that momentum will force fixing rather than derailing the locomotive.

The second is our slow economic recovery, particularly the slow jobs recovery, which I am hoping is a blessing in disguise going forward. Yes many people still without jobs are suffering mightily, but I believe a quick return to the more robust employment during our country’s “shop ’til you drop” hyper-consumerism would be a step backward. I hope that continuing flat job growth will instead catalyze new outside-the-box economic thinking in the worlds of consumption and work.

I am hoping that a “small is beautiful” ethos will take hold, and people will look at how they can lead their lives more simply, and really analyze spending their precious time and money more effectively. It seems like a significant amount of our spending in the past has been compensatory. We buy expensive cars, gadgets, vacations, etc. to compensate perhaps for unsatisfactory, stressful work environments that we endure to earn that extra money for those compensatory purchases… a vicious cycle.

I’m also thinking about the possible logic of a transition from the conventional forty-hour to say a thirty-six-hour work week, with a commensurate ten percent reduction in pay. I believe a lot of people that work in stores, restaurants, etc. already are being limited by employers to less than forty hours per week. But particularly for higher wage “knowledge workers” and other “apparatchiks”, it seems at least simplistically, that the shorter work week and pay cut would perhaps open up ten percent more jobs in this higher paying category of work. Being in that category myself, I would take that trade-off even though it would be a big challenge to our budget.

Finally, the continuing sluggish economy with its significant impact on government spending, particularly the big-ticket item of public education, could catalyze a rethinking of our increasingly expensive top-down, bureaucratic school system in favor of something simpler, featuring the basic triad between student, parent and teacher.

On that note, the third is the growing challenge to the conventional wisdom of the “Education-Industrial Complex” represented by the popularly provocative documentaries “Waiting for Superman” and “Race to Nowhere”, and by a one-off local insurrection in Compton California where parents petitioned to oust the staff of their neighborhood public school in favor of an outside charter group. I’m hoping that we are seeing here a growing movement to challenge conventional educational wisdom, perhaps something akin to what my friend Ron Miller calls out in his book, The Self-Organizing Revolution. Says his book’s promo blurb…

The Self-Organizing Revolution explores the transition from the modern institution of mass schooling to a postmodern network of diverse learning options available to all young people. Miller wrestles with the philosophical, moral, and political questions that arise with the radical proposition that public schooling as we know it has become obsolete. He cautions against simplistic models of privatization and lays out an egalitarian, democratic, socially responsible program of decentralized education.

I’m hoping there is synergy here with the sluggish economy and likely continuing cuts in public education spending. As the Soviet Union learned, a huge hierarchical bureaucracy featuring top-down control and little “ownership” by the people at the bottom is debilitatingly expensive to maintain. I think our state public school systems are comparable pyramids of ineffective spending above the level of students, teachers and parents in the school “trenches”. As the control model begins to unravel due to lack of funding, I’m hoping we will see more insurrections from parents, teachers, and even students, to tear down “the wall” between bureaucratic practice and real learning.

Fourth (and last for this piece) is the playing out of the “Tea Party rebellion” in our political process. I think the election of these populist fiscally-conservative contrarians is just act one of a perhaps five-act play, the catalyst for more to come in the 2012 election, when the stakes will be ratcheted very high on all sides. Between now and that election, the growing American dichotomy between governance and gaining political advantage will be highlighted in stark relief.

The compelling political drama may well be how the Republicans try to find a Presidential candidate with sufficient gravitas from perhaps a weak field of Fox News commentators, little-known governors, and junior senators. All this while the person with the most buzz and eyeballs, Sarah Palin, may well just comment and grant favor lucratively from the sidelines. Obama vs Rubio in 2012 anybody? A former junior senator vs a current one?

Will the energized Tea Party constituency (the conservative side of the “part of the problem or part of the solution” baby-boomers) drag the GOP back to a focus on fiscal conservatism from their thirty-year romance with religious, racial and social conservatives? Has the ideological realignment of American political parties, set in motion by Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally played itself out?

But in the context of all that classic American political theater, how will major issues of governance, including implementation of health care reform, move forward? Will we have government agencies charged with implementing the new policy while the funding to do so is blocked by reform opponents? At the state level, will we have a patchwork quilt of efforts toward universal coverage moving forward in “blue” states while languishing in “red” ones? And when the Supreme Court ruling comes down on the mandate to purchase health insurance, how will that impact the mix?

Certainly a lot for a “news junkie” to look forward to in the year ahead. But beyond that spectator sport, a hope that there will emerge some new possibilities for all of us to take more control of our own lives and our institutions (including education) in an effort to “right size” things toward more simplicity, efficacy and sustainability.

2 replies on “Lefty Parent 2010 Year in Review”

  1. Although I agree that we *must* provide quality, affordable health care to all, I have mixed feelings about parts of the health care bill, mostly not thought out well enough to talk about. The political situation, I am sorta confused about. I am pretty apolitical in general (I hate party wrangling) but have been trying to carve out a little space in my life to self-educate a bit so can talk politics without sounding like a total hillbilly.

    Education? Right on!!! And also backing off from hyper-consumerism. I was more of a consumer a few years ago and am now struggling to dig out. I do need a decent, highway-able automobile (or two) though. With my elderly mother and family property a 350 miles away in a place not well-served by public transportation, driving is my only option. Until Apple comes up with an iPhone apparation app 🙂

  2. KW… appreciate your thoughts and your effort to get yourself up-to-speed on all this crazy stuff!

    I too have mixed feelings about the health care bill, and I suspect the overwhelming majority of people in our country do as well. But I also think it is a long needed initial step forward toward a goal that has eluded us for half a century. A goal that I am convinced will be a great benefit to all aspects of our society, promoting health maintenance and allowing us to have less stress and more energy to focus on living well together in society.

    As to developing that political sophistication, from reading your blagh and your grasp of life’s absurdist theater, I think you will be up to speed on politics in no time…*g*

    So happy new year to you, your extended family and its cast of characters, and all the inhabitants of the Planet Ann Arbor!

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