Posts Tagged ‘education’

Last night like many Americans I watch President Obama’s ABC News Health Care Forum, filmed from the White House. Among the things that struck me most was how vague and sound-bite oriented the President’s answers were to the panels questions and how the pressures of commercial television force speakers into confining their messages to short concise sound-bites. It seemed like the program was interrupted for commercial breaks at an interval that would have made it impossible for the president to have a more nuanced discussion of his plan. He rarely went into actual numbers and I do not recall him specifying anything about the specific language of his proposed legislation.

The event was clearly a media event and an exercise in public relations for the president. Also, the event was meant to answer some very broad questions the about health care that the general public has. I see this type of thing as being very similar to what happens at National Democratic or Republican conventions. During these events the party introduces the candidate they selected and has a big celebratory party to tell everyone how great he (as of yet we have not had a female nominee from one of the major parties) is. In my opinion that makes these rather dull events. Who enjoys a story with no conflict in it? In the past, National Party Conventions were places of high energy, conflict and debate and candidates would go into specific details about their plans and disagreements. This can no longer be done since the major parties now use their National Conventions to convey messages of unity and rally voters behind the chosen candidates.

I noticed a similar trend when watching debates between candidates in both parties during the 2008 election cycle. They confined their discussion to nothing but talk that was easy to follow for the average uninterested viewer. In the debates it was difficult to find any features that differentiated Hillary Clinton’s health care plan from Barack Obama’s, and the candidates were criticized when the delved too deeply into the finer points of their plans.

All of this leads me to question the state of public discourse in our country. Are our attention spans so short that we cannot handle anything more than short bumper-sticker soundbites and endless sloganeering? Does public opinion really rest more on a figure’s media image and personality than it does on the actual content of their ideas? Is our media actively keeping us politically shallow as it diminishes the role of political discourse to that of filler between commercial messages?

America is lucky enough to have had an electoral government and peaceful transfers of power between leaders continuously for more than two centuries. We live very well compared to people in other parts of the world and our government is very stable, so maybe changes in our government do not raise as much passion as some of the more disruptive political changes that take place around the world, but our politics are important — we are in the middle of two on-going wars and a period of mass economic uncertainty.

Our politics not only play a big role in issues like health care, environmental quality, how we educate our children, and more. This is not to mention that what happens in U.S has a huge influence worldwide, but we are (for now) the global hegemon, and our economy is intricately tied to that of every other nation on Earth. In American politics the future of the world is often literally at stake. So, with that I urge all of our readers to please take a little more interests in what are government is doing. Maybe then the media will follow suite.

The Disappointed Environmentalist

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This is an issue that has been bothering me for some time, but does not get as much play in political discourse I think it should. In my opinion the high cost of education and my generation’s huge accumulation of loan debt are likely to be one of the biggest problems that ordinary people in this country face.

The increased integration of the global economy is dictating that we have a highly educated workforce in order to remain competitive. To get this, high-quality post-secondary education needs to be available to all who want it, and people who have received secondary education need to have the freedom to meet their potential.

Unfortunately, this is not the way the situation looks currently. The cost of post-secondary education has grown to unprecedented heights, and more than half of college graduates are indebted to student loan providers by the time they graduate. It has become commonplace for college graduates to be saddled with anywhere from $50 to over $100 thousand in debt.

I admit that I may be a little biased, being that this issue hits very close to home for me. I am a recent graduate myself and have seen many people in my age group saddled with unbelievable amounts of debt. As is reflected by my work at Public Citizen, I am an aspiring government reformer whose primary ambitions are in the nonprofit sector. I love the fact that I am able to work for an organization that makes efficient use of its funding and fights for the things I value, making a genuinely positive impact. This type of thing is not an option to many of the people I graduated with, because they are forced to work jobs that pay enough to pay off their accumulated debt.

While many of colleagues may not have chosen this career path anyway, it is unfortunate that it is not even a viable option for them. One cannot help but note the irony of many people my age being unable to fight the status quo because they are so heavily indebted to companies that want to preserve it.

The costs of education have continued to rise in this country, and government assistance has fallen heavily. Over the last few decades the amount of tuition costs paid for by Pell grants for students in need of financial assistance has dramatically declined from covering over 60% to below 30% of students. In 1997, amendments added to the Higher Education Act deregulated the student loan business and made it possible for lenders to charge huge interest rates and massive default penalties fees. Companies are now able to forbid refinancing and use of bankruptcy protections for debtors. Worse, they are now able to garnish wages and social security, as well as prevent debtors from obtaining professional certifications and use their influence to terminate debtors employment. Sally Mae and other companies are able to see to it that their debtors are unable to pay off their loans and accumulate enormous amounts of interest — and of course they have spent millions of dollars lobbying and donating to the campaigns of their allies in congress like House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senator Mike Enzi.

Much like the sub prime loans that led to the mortgage crisis last year, these loans are sold to incoming students as being much more affordable then they are in reality. They are not warned of the astronomical amounts of interests that these loans often accumulate, or how quickly interest rates can jump. Defaulted students loans have become a huge industry and this legalized loan-sharking has made the executives and share holders at Sally Mae and other lending companies very well off. Unfortunately this boon to their fortunes has done considerable harm to our current generation of college graduates and our country’s ability to compete in the world economy.

The Disappointed Environmentalist

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Southwestern University may be a small campus unbeknown to most, yet, this university has big plans for becoming a leader of sustainability in the state of Texas. Only about 1,300 students call Southwestern home, and roughly 60 members of the student body are involved in the university’s environmental organization, Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge (SEAK). Since SEAK’s genesis a few years back, it has been SEAK’s long-existing goal for Southwestern University’s president to sign onto the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. This past ambition finally became a reality for Southwestern this past Tuesday, February 10, 2008, when President Jake Schrum signed the Commitment.

Southwestern University is now amongst the 600 other colleges and universities that have signed onto this agreement throughout the United States. Furthermore, Southwestern’s cooperation with the PCC makes it: the 18th college in Texas to sign the PCC, the only other college in Central Texas (Houston-Tillotson is the other)to also sign the PCC, and the one of two universities that has signed both the PCC and Talloires (“Tal-wahr”) Declaration–an international initiative related to sustainability in higher education.

Specifically, President Schrum’s pledge to the PCC entails that he must:

* Complete an emissions inventory.
* Within two years, set a target date and interim milestones for becoming climate neutral. This means either emitting no greenhouse gases, or offsetting emissions through energy credits and other methods.

* Take immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by choosing from a list of short-term actions.
* Integrate sustainability into the curriculum and make it part of the educational experience.
* Make the action plan, inventory and progress reports publicly available.

The recent signing took place at the University’s Roy and Margaret Shilling Lecture series, where environmental and political activist, Wangari Maathai, served as the guest speaker. wangari_maathaiWangari Maathai currently hails from Nairobi, Kenya. In 2004, she became the first African American woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace”. Most of her environmental efforts were concentrated in Africa’s Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. More recently, between the years of 2003-2005, she was an elected member of Parliament and served as the Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources under the government of President Mwai Kibaki of seakKenya.

After an hour long lecture on her past involvements and future hopes concerning the environment, she congratulated the University on it’s efforts to build a sustainable future in world “periled with climate challenges. “I want the whole world to copy your actions at Southwestern University,” she said.

For more information about Wangari Maathai, check out this video which highlights her work from her 2008 documentary, “Taking Root”: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5GX6JktJZg>

Beyond Southwestern’s recent initiative to sign onto the PCC, the campus has also made many efforts to become the most sustainable campus it can be by implementing the following features:

* A “Civic Engagement/Green Hall” opened in the new Dorothy Manning Lord Residential Center in fall 2007.
* The new Wilhelmina Cullen Admission Building was designed to be a green building, and Southwestern has applied for the building to become certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program. The building was designed with the goal of Gold LEED certification, the second highest possible certification.
* The Center for Lifelong Learning, which is currently under construction, was also designed to be a “green” building.
* Southwestern students have organized two environmental summits for area high school students.
* Students have been given consecutive grants to attend the national Powershift Conference in Washington DC and are consistent participants in ReEngerize Texas.
* The university has made recycling bins available in all campus offices. Both paper, plastic and aluminum cans are now recycled.
* Southwestern students, faculty and staff members are constructing an organic community garden behind the Studio Arts Building this semester.
* Compost piles for food waste also have been set up near the community garden.
* When Herman Brown and Moody-Shearn Residence Halls were renovated in summer 2008, the old fixtures and furniture was picked up by an organization that could recycle them.
* The custodial staff is phasing in the use of all green cleaning products.
* Students have been working with the Sodexo staff to have the Commons go “trayless.”

As a student of Southwestern and member of SEAK, I speak from experience when I say that it is no easy task to make sustainability a number one priority on such a small campus. I feel assured that most smaller schools in America have environmental groups on campus, or at least a few students who are interested in bringing sustainability to their campus. My advice to all of you is to organize and incite some environmental action on your campus as best as possible! It’s never an easy task when it’s just a few students, but there are so many possibilities to become involved in progressive environmental action. Attending local conferences, organizing environmentally-themed parties/mixers, talking to your campus president about your school’s environmental policies, gardening, or even just starting a environmental club on campus are just a few initial steps a small campus can take to gain green recognition amongst the student body.

Kudos to Southwestern and all other universities around the world working to create sustainable learning institutions that will positively benefit the environment we all share!

On behalf of Public Citizen Texas and Southwestern University,

Melissa Dison

Southwestern University c/o 2011

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An investigative report by USAToday brought me to tears this morning.

Granted, I am a particularly emotional person at a period of transition in my life. I just started a new job (here, with Public Citizen!) in a new town (loving Austin already), and am living out of a suitcase. Things are rather in flux, and my emotional state may have followed suit. But I think that even beyond all that, USA Today’s recent report finally made air toxics issues hit home.

Cesar Chavez High School In Houston, TX

USAToday’s report, entitled “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools”, ranks 127,800 schools nationwide based upon the concentrations and health hazards of the chemicals likely to be in the surrounding air.

The report was initiated after Meredith Hitchens Elementary School in Addyston, Ohio was closed due to the danger posed by the surrounding air. Air monitors placed near the school recorded extremely high levels of toxics coming from the plastics plant across the street. When the Ohio EPA determined that students were being exposed to cancer at levels 50 times higher than what the state deems an acceptable risk, the school was shut down.

Following this story, USAToday spent 8 months examining the extent and danger of schools located in toxic hot spots. Using the EPA’s own models for tracking toxic industrial chemicals, USAToday found 435 schools across the country with air quality worse than that which caused the closure of Hitchens Elementary School. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has a special office dedicated to protecting children’s health, the agency has never used their own data or models to look at potential problems surrounding schools. Nor does the office set health and safety standards for children in schools, as they do for adults in the workplace.

Philip Landrigan, a physician who heads Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s children’s health and the environment unit, comments on this problem in the article:

“The mere fact that kids are being exposed ought to be enough to force people to pay attention. The problem here is, by and large, there’s no cop on the beat. Nobody’s paying attention.”

Children are particularly susceptible to the health risks associated with toxic chemical exposure. Because or their small size, children breathe in more air in relation to their weight than adults. Their bodies are also still in a formative state, making early exposure all the more dangerous. And since kids are required to spend so many childhood hours in school, toxins are likely to accumulate in their bodies and not cause problems until years later.

Unfortunately, the names of several Texas schools peppered this national article. The first was San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park:

“At San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas, data indicated carcinogens at levels even higher than the readings that prompted the shutdown of Hitchens. A recent University of Texas study showed an “association” between an increased risk of childhood cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel, about 2 miles from the school.”

The USAToday report’s findings were based upon EPA data and industry estimates. That means, unfortunately, that even what they’ve reported “may be a gross underestimate”, because industries only estimate their emissions. For the most part, dangerous chemical carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene are not monitored because they are not regulated by the EPA. USAToday’s report suggested that Deer Park might be a hot spot particularly worthy of such monitoring because students are exposed to very high levels of carcinogens at area elementary, middle, and high schools – that is, throughout every level of their education and development.

Port Neches-Groves High School in Port Neches, Texas, was featured as a major part of the report. That’s because 27 graduates of Port Neches schools have sued the chemical plants there or there former owners after being diagnosed with cancer… (more…)

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