Congresswoman Susan Davis held a town hall event last night at the Normal Heights Community Center. A standing room only crowd gathered to ask questions of their congressperson, and all in all it was pretty civil. The gathering lasted an hour, which turned out to be more than enough time for the Congresswoman to answer a lot of questions.
There were quite a few questions on education and education funding. Davis sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, and as a former School Board member it’s an area of particular interest. She mentioned in her opening remarks that she is flooded with letters and calls regarding “No Child Left Behind,” the remnant education “reform” program from the Bush administration that has been a lightning rod for controversy. The program—which was continued but altered slightly by the Obama Administration, supplemented by the “Race to the Top” initiative—must be changed, Davis says.
The chief criticism of No Child Left Behind is its near complete reliance on student test scores to measure not only student progress but teacher effectiveness. Under the program, teachers feel forced to “teach to the test” in order to make themselves and their students appear more successful.
There are a myriad of problems with the program too numerous to cover here. But one of the main concerns is the fairness of evaluating teachers strictly according to how their students perform on a standardized test, which is effectively what No Child Left Behind does. There are simply far too many factors that are not taken into consideration to make it even an adequate measure.
A key issue that Davis said she would like to see addressed in education is to find better ways to get feedback from teachers and school administrators. “No Child” doesn’t really do that in any meaningful way. Teachers and school principals under “No Child” are not consulted on matters relating to education in the classroom, and that has to change. There are better ways to work with our teachers instead of scapegoating them (a favorite Conservative pastime).
Education funding was brought up by a young woman whose mother is a teacher. Funding in schools has been slashed to the bare bones. Art and music programs have been abandoned despite the myriad of studies that show that they are an important part of a balanced education; students that are involved in art and music in school learn better. Funding for science has also been cut back.
The questioner stated quite simply “We need more money for our schools.” She’s right…….and she’s wrong. The Congresswoman pointed out that not too long ago schools were practically flush with cash. Class sizes were at optimal levels almost across the board and yet it didn’t help. Simply throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve the problem. It’s true that our schools need more money, but what’s even more important is that the money is being invested into programs that actually improve the quality of education in our schools.
The federal government doesn’t get directly involved in the curriculum taught in schools. That’s typically done at the state level. And according to Davis, only about 8% of the federal budget is spend on education. But what the federal government can do is support programs that work, and help weed out the ones that don’t. It can also provide a universal baseline standard for the direction of education in the United States.
Of course, one of the major themes of the night was the war in Afghanistan. Everyone wants to bring our troops home. Everyone wants to stop spending billions of dollars every month fighting an unpopular war, especially since the death of Osama bin Laden. Davis listened to the multitude of speakers rail about corporate bailouts and warmongering. In response, Davis simply said that while we want to bring our troops home, “we have to be smart about it.”
Let me extrapolate: Just because bin Laden is dead doesn’t mean that the task is over. Bin Laden was only part of the problem. Although the Taliban no longer controls the Afghan government, they’re still around and poised to retake the country should the central government falter (which at this point is a near certainty).
The bottom line is this: Colin Powell said in the run up to Iraq “We break it, we bought it” in regards to taking responsibility for the future of the Iraqi people. The same must be said about Afghanistan. We broke it, and now it’s our responsibility to fix it before we abandon ship. If American forces completely abandon the country before the government there is capable of operating on its own, including their security forces being able to operate without the training, direction, and support of American forces, then Afghanistan will fall back into the hands of the very people that brought the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to our doorstep, as it was the Taliban’s support that made Al Qaeda’s actions possible. The Karzai government—as flawed as it is—will completely collapse and the entire country will fall into utter chaos. And as much as Americans don’t want to admit it, it’s our mess to clean up.
Until the government in Afghanistan is able to stand on its own two feet—a process that must be accelerated exponentially—then it’s our responsibility to make sure that the country doesn’t fall apart.
We broke it, we bought it.
One questioner (me) brought up the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” in Republicanese) and the fact that it doesn’t really do much to control the rising cost of healthcare. This ties into Medicare because as costs rise Medicare is forced to spend more for less. Republicans insist that Medicare is going to go bankrupt very soon, and that something drastic must be done to save it.
Paul Ryan and the Republicans in Congress have proposed something drastic alright, and Davis took more than one opportunity to lampoon the Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system.
Under the Republican plan, seniors would be issued a flat rate voucher to help them purchase insurance from the private market. It’s a plan, Davis pointed out, that will cost seniors over $6,000 per year out of their own pocket just for insurance—if they can even find insurance. That does not count the other out-of-pocket expenses to pay for what the insurance companies won’t cover. Ryan’s plan will eventually pay for less than half of seniors’ coverage, and it’s a plan that scares everyone to the left of Atilla the Hun, including Newt Gingrich.
But the central problem remains: Healthcare costs are skyrocketing; Medicare is spending more than it’s taking in because of it, which means that it will eventually run out of money.
Davis noted that most of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act haven’t yet gone into effect, and won’t for another three years. But here was a point that I think often gets lost in the blather: The Affordable Care Act is a starting point. Davis reminded us that it is impossible to completely overhaul our entire healthcare system overnight. The goal is to eventually transform the system from a fee for service setup where doctors and hospitals charge fees for every procedure they perform, to a value based system where doctors and hospitals get paid based on the outcomes they produce.
Davis said that pilot programs are being started across the country to transform the healthcare delivery system to mimic the model of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. (Read about the Mayo Clinic and their approach to medicine here. Be sure to click the links for a more in depth explanation of their approach to “value based medicine”). The Mayo Clinic model delivers better results at half the cost. But it’s a model that needs to be studied more for implementation on a grand scale, and it’s going to take time. There are already provisions in the Affordable Care Act to start that process, such as digitizing all medical records so all of a patient’s doctors have access to them, and so that duplicate procedures can be avoided.
If healthcare costs can be controlled in this manner, then Medicare costs will by default come down. It is going to take time, though, and a lot of patience.