Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Vote Yes on April 9

    I just read a few articles by researchers who have studied at-large vs. ward-based elections across the country, and who have published their findings in scholarly journals of political science. Those research results in favor of ward-based voting mean a lot to me. If the research showed that at-large voting systems produced better results than ward-based, I would not be advocating a change to ward-based.
    I don’t think many other voters here in Jacksonville will be influenced by those articles. That’s not enough for me, either. What matters even more is what has happened and is happening in District 117.
    Jacksonville has had a long history of neighborhood schools. Many of the school buildings were noteworthy for their architecture. Three of them have been abandoned by the School Board over the past few years. Because of at-large voting, there was nobody on the School Board from those parts of our community.
    Those buildings stand in sections of town that have suffered from historical neglect. The historical problems of neighborhoods near the center of Jacksonville are not the School Board’s fault. But now our city government and we taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to revive the downtown. Meanwhile
the School Board has offered no plans for these shells, which could soon become eyesores.
    Our schools are underfunded. The state is cutting educational funds and will keep cutting them. If we want good schools, we will need to spend more of our own money. The School Board failed to raise that money with a 1% sales tax last year, in a vote they lost nearly 2 to 1. Their public relations were unsuccessful, perhaps because their plans were vague and unconvincing. The people of Morgan County are not against education, but the School Board failed to convince voters that it could spend that money wisely.
    District 117 has a vacuum in leadership. We have had 4 different superintendents or interim superintendents in less than 2 years. The School Board has failed to find a strong leader for the most important position in District 117.
    One of the parts of our community not represented on the School Board is also not present in the schools: while 17% of our students are non-white, the teaching staff in District 117 is 99.2% white. There is one black member of the teaching staff out of 238. This information comes from the School District’s own Report Card on its website. But I have heard no plans to do anything about that.
    The School Board has not helped to get the population of Jacksonville engaged in education. That engagement is the responsibility of all adults in the community, not only parents of school children. The School Board has not found a way to deal with the problem of underengagement in our schools. Its discouragement of discussion at public meetings is an obstacle to community involvement.
    Gary Scott, who has spoken at two events I have attended, praised the enthusiasm that is suddenly apparent in Jacksonville; at the rally to oppose ward-based voting, he said, “It’s the first time we’ve talked about education in this town for years.” Former superintendent Bob Crowe said the bond of trust between community and School Board has been broken. And Scott and Crowe are supporters of keeping voting for the School Board just as it is.
    The message from the proponents of at-large voting, at all the forums I have attended, is that the School Board has failed, but let’s do nothing. Let’s not change the voting system. And let’s not talk about anything else. From the opponents of change all we hear is to maintain the status quo.
    But we can do better. To do that we need a better School Board, one which has a positive plan for our neighborhood schools, one which inspires parental and community involvement, one which figures out how to put a diverse group of teachers in front of our diverse students, one which offers good reasons to spend more of our money on education and good plans for how they will create better results for our students.
    How do we get a better School Board? Those articles I read all agreed that ward-based voting provides better representation of minority voters, which eventually leads to a more diverse teaching staff, which leads to better academic performance by students.
    The majority of the School Board has failed to engage with our local discussions about how to vote. Instead they have put obstacles in the way of public discussion: the Board refused to put this topic on its agenda.
    That’s not the way to help this community make an important decision. It’s the way to block change, to dampen enthusiasm, to stay in office, and to keep doing the same things which have brought us here.
    A vote to maintain the at-large system is a vote to accept these failures.
    Vote Yes in April, and then keep voting with your feet and bodies and checkbooks for a better education for Jacksonville’s kids.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 26, 2013

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I Need Police Protection

I bother some people. A lot. I know this from reading the comments about me that appear everywhere these columns are read. It has been made clear to me more than once that some people with wealth and power in this town don’t like that I publish my opinions every week. There are people who would very much like me to dissociate my writings from Illinois College, where I work.

People with less personal connection with me have much harsher ideas in mind. They say I shouldn’t be a teacher, that I shouldn’t be allowed to write for a newspaper, that I am an evil person. They want to shut me up entirely.

What if they were in charge? What if our political system, at any level, were dominated by the people who want to get rid of me? That’s not such a far-fetched possibility.

When a police car drives by my house now, I have nothing more to fear than my neighbors do. That is a privilege enjoyed by few people on this earth. We Americans talk a lot about our rights. It is easy to forget that our ability to express our opinions without worry that the cops will show up at our door tomorrow is rare in the world, and has often been violated here at home. We must always be vigilant in protection of our sweet liberty.

That’s why I pay close attention to what political leaders do and say, especially those who most loudly disagree with me. Here is what I see.

Proponents of gun ownership in communities across the nation have proposed that every household in their towns be required to own a gun. Such an ordinance was passed unanimously by the city council in rural Nelson, GA: “every head of household residing in the city limits is required to maintain a firearm, together with ammunition therefore”. Kennesaw, GA, has had such a municipal ordinance since 1982. Towns in Idaho and Utah are also considering such laws. The city council in Byron, ME, passed a mandatory gun ownership law. That caused outrage among the town’s citizens, nearly half of whom packed a town meeting to nearly unanimously reject that idea.

Laws about “concealed carry” sometimes restrict the rights of private entities to control what happens on their property. Concealed carry laws have been proposed in Iowa and Ohio which would prevent private educational institutions from banning guns on their campuses. Some participants in the current discussion in Illinois about concealed carry wish to forbid private entities from banning guns on their property. What if those people were in charge?

What if the police showed up in my classroom, because I refused to teach while some students were carrying guns? What if they were required to enforce a law that mandated that my household possess a gun? Suppose they heard from reliable sources that I did not own a gun. Would they have the right to search my home?

The makers of these laws always say that they will allow exceptions. The Kennesaw GA law reads: “Exempt from the effect of this section are those heads of households who suffer a physical or mental disability which would prohibit them from using such a firearm. . . . who are paupers or who conscientiously oppose maintaining firearms as a result of beliefs or religious doctrine, or persons convicted of a felony.”

What if I said publically that I refuse to own a gun? Would they test me for mental disability? If I wanted to plead poverty, would I have to show them my tax forms? Who would decide whether my beliefs are conscientious or what religion I have?

I don’t think these things will happen where I live. But there are politicians I worry about. Hispanic citizens of East Haven, CT, have been subjected to police terror for years. In January 2012, the FBI arrested four police officers, including the president of the local police union, on charges that they “assaulted individuals while they were handcuffed, unlawfully searched Latino businesses, and harassed and intimidated individuals”.

In parts of the US, doctors and nurses cannot safely practice medicine, if that involves the legal procedure called abortion. The kind of social practices that used to be called riots when they were protesting discrimination or the Vietnam War are now commonplace around abortion clinics in some states. Dr. George Tiller’s clinic was the scene of many instances of violence before he was murdered in 2009. He had been described by Bill O’Reilly on national television as “Dr. Killer” and “Tiller the baby killer”, and he was pursued by a prosecutor in the Kansas Attorney General’s office.

What if those people were in charge?

Extreme conservatives talk a lot about liberty. But their definition of liberty doesn’t always include my liberty. I want my police force to protect me from all kinds of threat, including those of the far right.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 19, 2013

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Clothes Can Demean the Woman

People used to say, “Clothes make the man.” That was true. Before the French Revolution, commoners were prohibited by law from dressing like nobles, so a person’s class was recognizable from their clothes. Clothing was a sign of status, wealth and power.

Today celebrities wear jeans, and commoners can buy designer knock-offs, so it’s hard to tell who’s who from the way they look. Only male politicians seem to wear status uniforms all the time – dark suits, solid ties, flag lapel pins, and boring shoes.

Even if they no longer identify class, our clothes still make an impression on others, and are designed to do just that. Wearers, designers, and manufacturers collaborate to create individual looks, which are always socially influenced and sometimes socially prescribed. In the American world I see in my small hometown and everywhere else, the look prescribed for women is sexy. And I think it’s a mistake for women to capitulate to that fashion in their everyday dress.

High heels stretch the calves, making them (apparently) more attractive. Very high heels, not even as high as the 5 or 6 inches of many well-promoted shoes, lead to increased incidence of bunions, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, and knee and back pain. A recent study shows that regular high-heel-wearers alter their natural gait, even when barefoot. Dr. Judith Smith, an orthopedic surgeon in Springfield, MO, compares the social demand for high heels with Chinese foot-binding: “It is a fashion statement and a status symbol.”

Along with higher heels come short skirts, as tight as possible. It seems to me that skirts are shrinking and pants are getting tighter. It’s instructive to compare women’s and men’s jeans, or even women’s fashion jeans and the clothes of women who do physical work. Tight jeans are hard to put on, less comfortable all day, restrictive of free movement, and have no useful pockets. All form, no function, unless the function is just attracting attention to one’s body, defined by the curves of rear ends and long legs. In fact, for many women, pants have given way entirely to stretch tights.

I have to admit that I’m still surprised to see bare breasts on a daily basis. Women’s chests are more on display than any time I can remember. I can’t think of any reason to prefer tight, low cut tops for indoor wear other than for display.

In the 1970s I remember a powerful social trend among American women away from dressing for display to dressing for comfort, for convenience and for practicality. High heels shrank or disappeared in favor of ergonomic shoes, tight clothes loosened up, artificial restraints like girdles vanished, stockings were put back in the drawer. Because women were fighting to be taken seriously, as workers, as intellectuals, as minds, they rejected fashion conventions which stressed sex.

I believe that young women today have forgotten that lesson, and are returning to dressing for display. They risk being taken seriously only as sex objects.

I am not advocating that women cover up, the position taken by religious conservatives in many faiths. A woman should be able to walk around in the nude without having to worry about being assaulted, or even being touched, by strangers. But she cannot expect to be taken seriously for her intelligence, or even to have people look at her face.

Women can dress as they please. And then they take the consequences of their choices – to be regarded for their brains, their accomplishments, or their bodies.

The back of my box of Girl Scout cookies says “Oh, what a girl can do!” Whatever it is that girls, or women, might do, they won’t be able to do it as well in high heels and tight skirts, unless it is simply to attract everyone’s gaze away from their heads to their bodies.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 12, 2013