Failing the Democracy Test

Our city’s largest school system has been trapped in a prolonged controversy over a locally designed curriculum intended to incorporate the experiences of “minorities” into the teaching of American history. Most of the newspaper reporting on this matter has failed to give examples of ideas the teaching materials convey, but debate ceased last week when the district’s governing board voted to suspend the courses rather than give up $15 million of their state funding.

The fight started in 2001 when a federal judge ordered Tucson Unified School District to offer it students “culturally relevant” courses to satisfy desegregation rules stipulated decades ago: public schools are to teach every single student “equally.” The faculty responded with a class called Mexican American Studies which taught American history and government inclusive of racism in our society. In 2006, the state’s attorney general started to campaign against MAS (and also similar university-level studies), which lead to the introduction of H.B.2281 and the Arizona legislature then passing a law banning public school courses that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, foster racial resentment or are designed for students of a particular ethnicity.” The new Ethnic Studies Law (A.R.S. 15-112) specifically prohibits courses that encourage ethnic solidarity as opposed to “teaching to individuals.”

WelcomeWhen the law took effect in 2011, TUSD had 53,000 students, 60% Hispanic and 24% white/Anglo, and 15% other ethnicities. The disputed courses remained in place. Over 90% of the students in the elective MAS classes were Hispanic and 5% were white/Anglo. The lead teachers had been accused of recruiting students to their own activist causes.

Supporters of the classes praised the program for boosting student achievement. Two supporters filed a lawsuit asserting that the new law was unconstitutional A state-commissioned, independent audit showed that the classes had indeed improved Latino student achievement. The auditors largely supported MAS though indicated the curriculum and teaching techniques needed some tidying up. For example, the term “RAZ Studies” should not be used on the materials.

The state superintendent of schools disregarded their conclusions and prepared to withhold 10% of the district’s funding for its refusal to comply.

As an attempt to calm critics, the governing board did drop the MAS courses, and also removed seven controversial books from the overall curriculum. A group outraged by this was formed, calling itself Librotraficante (“book smuggler”). The board un-banned them in 2013 and TUSD started to develop a new curriculum for elementary, middle and high school students that focused less on Mexican-American literature and perspectives, aiming to teach all students how to respect each other’s cultures. While specifics were still undecided, state authorities declared the classes wouldn’t meet “core educational standards.” (Never mind that the concept of a “core curriculum” is another hot potato.)

Meanwhile, Librotraficante won the 2012 Robert Downs Freedom of Information Award given by the faculty of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award. It was presented at the American Library Association meeting in Seattle. ALA had condemned the TUSD book banning and librarians subsequently gathered to examine the Tucson problem. Libroficante soon expanded across the country and published a magazine and a freedom of speech event created in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month.

Also, the original MAS teachers offered to teach the courses outside of school. A version was made available through the Tucson branch of a private liberal arts college, a rarity in Arizona. Prescott College is opposed to any law that prohibits multicultural education. Chican@Literature is worth two college credits to high school students who complete the course.

Last week (January 10, 2015) an administrative law judge ruled TUSD’s MAS courses had violated the new Ethnic Studies Law by teaching history “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” Almost immediately, the TUSD governing board suspended the Mexican-American studies department. The single dissenter (daughter of U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva) stated that the law is a manifestation of the anti-immigrant political climate in the state house.

In my next few posts, I would like to share my thoughts (and experience) concerning the fears HB 2281 expressed: the overthrow of government, racial resentment, and catering to a particular ethnicity.

Can you afford a divorce? Think ahead.

Our octogenarian English cousins met us in London for a theatre date.

Our octogenarian English cousins met us in London for a theatre date.

One of my great joys upon getting a divorce 43 years ago was to open my own bank account. I had control. I didn’t even have a job, at first.

 A few weeks ago I caught myself reflecting on my naiveté. I wrote to a friend in London:

 “It has been a revelation to us to see our English cousins thriving in their eighties when they started out so poor. They are in better financial health than they ever have been, though he was a branch sales manager of an insurance company and she was a secretary (after the children were in school). None of their five children went to university, however. One who went into the Army did super-well and is working in retirement. Two other boys get along. The two girls, especially the divorced one, are relatively poor. They get benefits that our uneducated and unmarried young do not get, like help with housing.”

 As an afterthought, I added:

 “There is no doubt in my mind — in addition to our “get-rich and spend” brand of individualism — that a leading factor to our slippage is divorce. People who stay married generally can educate their kids.”

 I educated my three children on the good luck that their father was a member of a university faculty that had free tuition as a benefit. Otherwise, they would have had to go to a community college at a lower cost and probably work during the school year, not just summers. Or I would have had to ask my parents to help. Lucky, too, I had parents who could help.

That was 35 years ago. Today’s middle class single moms might make more money, but not nearly enough to match the soaring tuition costs at most schools, even public universities, without borrowing. We’ve had huge slippage, and it is trickling down now to the children, especially if they have had divorces, too.

I understand that English students still have barriers to higher education and one is debt. And there still is an attitude that some universities are for the elite. But I know something else about the English system. At present – and I emphasize the temporary – old age is very, very good for a family that has worked at all. The main benefit is free health care for everyone, which means less worry, and less self-neglect, both of which lead to debilitating age-related problems. That means there is less worry for the children of elders.

 Secondly, and way ahead of the American Dream, is that “pensioners,” as they are called, are encouraged to get out and about. Bus passes are free, train prices are reduced, entry to concerts and exhibitions also. Chances of isolation and loneliness are reduced. One might get a walker or wheelchair at no cost, and escape with a little help or without help at all if there is an elevator in the building.

Old Age pensioner enjoying London's V&A Museum.

Old Age pensioner enjoying London’s V&A Museum.

 Look around your neighborhood in the United States. How many elderly women living alone do you know? Who is a widow, and who is divorced?  Which of them has “lifestyle choices”?  How are their children able to help them out?

When We Were Renters



Grant Street Wausau WI

Grant Street, Wausau, Wisconsin. I lived there from age 4 to age 6. I returned there at age 61. That’s when I took these pictures. I’ve been back a couple times since because the memories flood from this place. We rented half of the house from the Gormans, who lived in the corner portion. One of the Gorman boys was in the war. Mrs. Gorman was old. The house was partly furnished, but my parents gradually, with my grandparents’ help, added furniture of their own. Google Earth tells me we lived in number 682.

Our House Grant Street

Bad things happened there. My baby brother was born in 1942 and I was so jealous that I started using a bottle again, fell off my skates with it, cut my finger badly. One day I was standing at my mother’s elbow as she was bathing Bobby in a little tub, and I tried to get up on the counter beside him. I knocked a pepper shaker off a shelf and rubbed it into my eye.

My grandma was in in the hospital in 1944. Mother took Bobby and me with her on the bus to visit on gray days in March. I remember the black-frocked nuns in a sepia corridor. I had to sit in the sunroom and sew yarn on cardboard pictures, waiting.  Grandma died.

Then Dad finally was drafted in April 1945, and we had our pictures taken on May 1, all dressed up. Mom and the baby went to live with Grandpa as soon as Dad left, only I stayed with my other grandma and grandpa to finish first grade. My painted turtle died in the classroom and I had to take it my grandparents’ home to bury it at the corner of their garage.

But good things happened on Grant Street, too. Dad made hamburgers and cut potatoes into french fries on Saturdays, and if it was summer we had big, thick tomato slices, otherwise canned peas. On long winter days Mom and I sat together by the front window while she painted her fingernails bright red. Before the Christmas pageant she bought me patent leather shoes.

We could walk downtown from here, and she bought me a new book every time. She also walked me to the public library, let me see the goldfish in the outdoor pond. She sewed mother-and-daughter dresses for us.

My grandpa came one day and took me with him to the train station (there at the end of the street) ro see the first streamliner that came to town. He was the station agent on a trunk line of the Chicago Northwestern Railway,  and the Hiawatha, a passenger train, was on the Milwaukee Road, but the engineers knew him and they let him lift me up to the cab, and he climbed up, and we sat looking out through the sleek, slanted, glass windscreen at the track.  I sort of remember. I do.

Uncle Hed (my living grandma’s brother, Hedvig Henderson) came to visit and gave me a huge peppermint stick, which lasted for months. I sat on the front porch swing – in the summer the window walls of the porch were removed — licking my peppermint. I got some on my sweater sleeve. My mom washed the fuzz off the candy stick.

The porch was a haven. I was very shy, but I liked to jump rope on the sidewalk in front of the house. One day a woman in a long black coat came along. She was old and hump-backed. I stopped jumping and scrambled to the porch. (I’ve told this story many times.) She was wearing something bright on her lapel and I was staring. She stopped, crooked her finger at me and said: “Little girl, come here.” I did.

“Do you know what this is made of?” she asked, tapping her gnarled finger against the smooth yellow butterfly. I shook my head from side to side. Probably my pigtails were flying. “It’s plastic,” she said. “My son gave this to me. He said some day whole houses will be made of plastic.” I soberly nodded and she turned and resumed her walk toward the downtown, Third Street.

Employers Mutual Wausau WI

First Presbyterian Church Wausau WI

Up that way, opposite the train station, were two important buildings just before downtown. One was where my dad worked, Employers Mutual, a luminous, three-story building with wide steps leading to its glass and concrete front. I know now it is considered a remarkable Art Deco triumph. In the same block, across the street, stood our church, a grand First Presbyterian, which is Gothic Revival. Both are now preserved as historically significant. Both are marks of the prosperity of our town, carved out of the forests along the Wisconsin River. In my childhood Wausau was surrounded by rich farmland owned by German immigrants who still had horses, just in case their new plows with engines failed them.

My grandpa’s railroad line was the conduit from farm to market. It most valuable cargo was ginseng. Second was fur, silver fox and ermine. We played on the scales at the station in the little town just ten miles from Wausau, from St. Mary’s Hospital. My other grandpa was an accountant for one of the richest families in town. He took us to visit the two farms kept as hobbies by the surviving women, Mrs. Alexander and Miss Ruth. One raised Aberdeen Angus cattle from Scotland, and the other had longhaired show rabbits and Sardinian donkeys. We would always get fresh eggs and, in the Spring, maple syrup.

That wasn’t the last house we rented. There was one more. When Dad came back in 1946, having seen Japan, we moved to a Victorian house with an earth basement and a gas meter in Upper Michigan. But by the time I was ten and Bobby was five we owned a house. But that’s a different story.

How important are pets?

Los Alamos Aug 2014 (83)

Happy Dogs

A storm is brewing in our neighborhood about a Proposition that is meant to provide a larger and newer animal shelter in our county. Some commentators on the listserv are irate about an increase of about $5 in property taxes. It’s ironic, as the most elite of dog owners can be seen parading their pets within our square mile and in our park where, against citywide rules, people let their fancy pets off leash to exercise.

It occurs to me that, though I’ve already voted on an early ballot in favor of the shelter improvements, we should have had a forum on this hot topic. Education of pet owners has been promised, but I don’t think that goes far enough. Why not require would-be pet owners to pass a certificate course in animal care before the pet can be licensed? Of course it would mean fewer people would bother to get licenses for their dogs, but it also would give dogcatchers a clear go-ahead to pick up neglected (i.e., unlicensed) pets. No license, no dog ownership allowed. It might also flush out some puppy mills in the process.

All I have to do to confirm my suspicion pet ownership needs more forethought is look at my own family members who thought they needed a canine companion. My parents bought a farm-bred Golden Retriever when my father retired and they moved to their house on a lake. Matt had a wonderful time running free, and he seldom got into trouble. When they moved to a smaller home in a town, my folks had a challenge. The free spirit still thought he could poop anywhere. When Dad was alive, he could control that by well-timed walks on an empty lot. When he died, and my mother had trouble walking that far, the next-door neighbor learned where to look for the daily pile – and she understood. However, Mom’s inability to walk Matt led to the darling dog’s growing girth, and Mom made up for her pet’s deprivation of exercise by feeding him treats, sometimes under the dinner table.

Mom and MattEventually, when Mom came to live with us her last few years of life, the dog couldn’t walk very far. We had witnessed her pain as she tried to ignore his stiffening up and struggles to get on his feet. It was recommended we have Matt put to sleep. Mother had a stroke that night. It was easy to understand why; Matt had served as her main connection to her husband of 60 years. When the dog died, Dad died all over again, and it wasn’t long before Mother died.

Then there is a grandchild who, when five, wanted to keep a doggie that came to sit on her dad’s back porch just outside the town limits. Dad couldn’t refuse, as he and the mom were going through a divorce. It was the least he could do to give the little girl comfort. The dog was a great companion for her for about a year until he was run over by a fast-moving vehicle. Another dog showed up, and it seemed a godsend, but when father and child moved to another town where the dog was alone during the day, she became a barker, and also a nipper. For the sake of peace with neighbors, she had to go.

Pets can be a wonderful source of fun, but they are more difficult to care for than one realizes – and more expensive. A free or almost-free shelter dog becomes an emotional bargaining chip, and not only in the family. There is nothing more loathsome about the pet business than the veterinarian who advertises that it is time for your pet’s flu shots, that it needs a professional tooth-brushing; or recommends a costly surgery to save its life. These so-called professionals prey on the guilt of parents and the loneliness of elderly owners.

How about levying a shelter tax on them? Then maybe the shelter personnel won’t have to add to the guilt we feel for not adopting another homeless animal.

Is housing a human right?

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Leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London, there was a scramble to secure housing for the athletes. The location for the games was Stratford, not Shakespeare’s home town on the River Avon, but a major transportation hub about six miles northeast of Trafalgar Square.

Until 1839 this area was pastoral, not much different from the voluptuous countryside just beyond it that is familiar to us through John Constable’s paintings. It happened to be a great place for growing potatoes, the fields fed by a network of streams and the River Lea, a major navigable route to the sea, and there was plenty of space left for the construction of homes for London’s merchants and bankers who could afford a weekend retreat.

In 1839, when the Great Eastern Railway made it an important stop and a site for manufacturing rail cars, the ancient parish was transformed. Industry expanded from a pottery works to become London’s incubator for new inventions.  Monorail, motorcycles, train engines, ships, and, inevitably, guns and gun powder were manufactured here. Thermionic diode and acetone were invented in local factories.


 As its natural beauty deteriorated, Stratford came under the scrutiny of Greater London planners whose redevelopment schemes further altered the landscape right up to the present. By 2012 Stratford Centre had a 26-story building for students, and Broadway Chambers new 39 and 20-story apartments.  The Olympian Tower was a landmark, and (planners thinking long-range) Strand East had been laid out for 1,200 homes and accommodations for technology businesses. Universities moved in. A new shopping center with 300 stores is one of the largest in Europe. All of this is served by several train routes, the Docklands Light Rail, and three underground lines. Further development of amenities will be capped by the new Crossrail that is changing the real estate game all across London. .

Today (Sept. 23, 2014), The Guardian ran an article by one of the single moms who have banded together to occupy one of the almost-empty buildings in this increasingly desirable location.  E15 Mothers are women who grew up in the area, but cannot afford its escalated rents. Before 2012, they were among 210 forced out of their hostel to make way for luxury flats. The council offered to “rehouse” them in distant Hastings, Manchester, and Birmingham.  But they dug their heels in, and opened a boarded-up flat in the Carpenters Estate, public housing next to Olympic Park. It, too, is on offer to developers.

E15 Mothers are demanding “social housing.”  There are many available spaces in their borough, they claim. They insist that housing, like education, water and healthcare, is a basic human right, not a privilege.

Many people in the United States would scoff at this. We have not yet recognized health care as a “basic right,” and in our neck of the woods we get bigger and bigger water bills. However, we do share England’s angst over “affordable housing,” having recently fallen victim to the same predatory process that has brought London workers to their knees, begging for relief, as rents and housing values soar.

What’s the difference between “social housing” and “affordable housing”? Here’s a hint: “Social” means community, with a government caring for everyone. “Affordable”  homes are houses priced on the free market, with a discount of 20%. Their values are radically inflated, justified by regenerating the area around the new homes. Landlords are ecstatic. Critics say this is “social cleansing.” Reformers can’t do much more than go along with additional transportation projects to carry people to their jobs from outlying areas.


The situation was palpable and daily headline news in the UK this winter. We got to talking with a member of the staff at a museum café who was working overtime. Do you live in Central London? No, it’s cheaper to live outside of London. How long does it take you to get to work? Two hours. Each week, The Evening Standard was running a feature on housing costs along a selected main tube line. Among the facts brought to our attention was the cost of a yearly or monthly Oyster Card to travel into the West End. What was missing is the cost of day care during those extra hours away from the family home, the status of the marriage, and the impact heavy traffic and construction are having on climate change.

NOTES ON PHOTOS: The Building Centre on Store Street in Bloomsbury permanently exhibits a model showing all recent development in Greater London, like he Shard (tallest building, in photo) and The Eye on the South Bank. Meanwhile, new projects are promoted in the daily newspapers. At present, it takes a million pounds to secure a  family home in London (about $1,700,000). Some projects are scaled back in the time it takes to attract investors and appease local council members. So many “owners” are international investors that the government recently mandated that desirable homes must be offered to UK citizens first. Often the owners are absent, creating a rash of “ghost mansions” across West London. A “mansion tax” is proposed as a deterrent to the invasion of foreigners who are adding property to their portfolios as “collectors.”