Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why not measure outcomes of the courts and the legislature?

Doesn’t it seem odd only one of the three branches of state government is expected to measure and produce positive outcomes? The Wyoming legislature has created its own bureaucracy around auditing executive branch programs “to provide the Legislature useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which desired program results are being achieved.” But no one measures the outcomes achieved (or not) by either the courts or the legislature.
Legislators and judges will argue they are accountable to the voters. Give us all a break. The legislature has created a system permitting most of them to run for re-election unopposed with little in the way of a public record and no transparency about how they vote. They use sub-districting to gerrymander themselves into lifelong jobs. Who they represent is identified by a number, e.g. House District XX, a number that means little or nothing to constituents who often have no idea of just who it is among the 60 House members and 30 senators who is supposed to represent them.
Just as the legislature audits executive branch agencies, so should the executive branch or an independent watchdog audit the legislature.  Let’s evaluate the evaluators! Let’s have an honest look at their relationships with lobbyists, whether and how they use facts and research in decision making, and the effectiveness of a committee structure that generates a lot of expense but few results, the amount of money they spend traveling and for what purpose. What are the results of all those studies that pile up on the shelves? Why do so few want to serve that a majority of the legislators run unopposed, never having to answer to anyone for a single vote.
And the courts? Actually the public does have a regular report on the failure of the court system. It’s called the “Blotter Briefs.” Each day you read the Blotter Briefs it should occur to you this lengthy list is an indicator of the outcomes achieved by the courts. Those who read the column carefully must feel they know some of the men and women, becoming familiar with those whose names appear often. But the Blotter Briefs exposes not only those whose names appear but also the failure of the courts to stop the revolving door.
The next time you read the “Blotter Briefs” ask yourself what “crimes” they actually report. For the most part those whose names appear repeatedly have mental health and/or substance abuse related problems. The crime is not only the one with which those individuals are charged. It is also the fact that with the exception of the drug and DUI courts, most judges refuse to employ research-based practices known to reduce recidivism among those offenders.
As we vote periodically on whether a judge should be retained wouldn’t you like to know what outcomes that judge has achieved? The judiciary should be accountable to produce statistics to demonstrate how they have used their immense power. Voters should know the recidivism rate for each judge. It’s a matter of public safety when courts fail to do what can be done to halt reoffending. The electorate should know the rate at which a certain judge jails youthful offenders or places them in costly out-of-home residential treatment.  After all Wyoming has one of the highest rates in the country for shipping children out of the community and the research shows this to be wholly ineffective. It also costs taxpayers an extraordinary amount of money that should be used instead to improve community based opportunities for families.
As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Judges and legislators may like it that way even while they hammer on executive branch agencies for “accountability.” If you think you’d like to see more effective government, perhaps it’s time to demand that light be shined on all three branches.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Here’s hoping you and I will have the great good fortune to have lived as troublemakers and to have died as change makers!

Excerpts from my speech opening the
Wyoming Social Worker’s Annual Meeting in Laramie September 22nd
I found a poem that gave me the idea for naming this speech “Living at the intersection of Maslow and Quixote.” The poem is entitled “Diary of an Intersection” and was written by Sarah Jackson.
I’m Commercial and Broadway (Can we use something more familiar to us? How about instead of Commercial and Broadway, we imagine ourselves at 24th Street and Capitol Avenue in Cheyenne? The site of the state capitol, the intersection between the Governor’s office, the legislature and many of the state agencies involved in delivering social services.)  With that change, let’s start anew.
I’m Capitol Avenue and 24th Street….I’m frequented by…tin-bucket artists and styro foam nine-to-fives, and one way I can see the sky. But mostly, I see only the soles of shoes. Through practice, I have learned to read souls. I’m an intersection, & it doesn’t make much this or that way to me what you think of my musings. I’ve got a lot of time to think. I am a foundation for many things, a method for many purposes. Personally, though I haven’t changed much over the years …though God knows my shell has & I’m thinking that in a few decades, you may well be saying the exact same thing about yourselves.
You went into your profession for the same reason I did mine, to change something…something in others, something in the community, something about the world. That our epitaph may be “I haven’t changed much over the years” whether read to mean I haven’t changed myself or that I have done nothing to change the world is abhorrent to the commitment we made.
24th and Capitol is a metaphor for an intersection that exists not only in Cheyenne but in every community, the place where policies are made, laws enacted, politics played and the status quo adamantly defended.  To avoid the admonition of the poet that in a few decades we will be saying of ourselves, we haven’t changed much over the years…let’s relocate to a different intersection, that of Maslow and Quixote.
We live out our professional lives not just on one street but at an intersection. The individuals we serve aren’t poor, addicted, abused, suffering from untreated or undertreated mental illness, hungry, homeless and hurting simply because of what is happening in their homes, on their streets, in their part of town. The causes always have their roots elsewhere in other parts of the community …intersections that don’t often get “social worked.”
Maslow argued the way in which essential needs are fulfilled is just as important as the needs themselves. Together, they define the human experience. Meaningful connections to an external reality are an essential component of self-actualization.
It occurred to me one day while I was the director at DFS, sitting around a large conference table, every seat filled with smart people, each holding bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate degrees…certainly degrees are a symbol of self actualization in our culture…all of us self actualized folks, sitting atop Maslow’s hierarchy…talking as though we knew what those still trying to survive at the bottom need.
We don’t. We may have taken all the right classes, read all the right books, hold all the right credentials…but we are back at 24th and Capitol if we think that affords us the right to decide for them what they need to reach the next level of the pyramid.
You cannot practice on Maslow Street unless you are willing to follow the research. Those folks over at 24th and Capitol have never moved beyond what they learned years ago, that with which they became comfortable. I had a professor at seminary who said he could always tell when a pastor graduated from seminary by the books on his or her shelf! That means we learned it once and refused to acknowledge how much the world of social science evolved.
You’re a part of a system where too many decisions are based on notions and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” i.e. what a person claims to know "from the gut" that "feels right" without regard to evidence, research or facts.
You’ll be challenged everyday of your professional lives by those who refuse to acknowledge how much contemporary research can change what we do…it’s why Wyoming still jails juveniles at a rate far higher than the rest of the country. It’s why we place children outside their community in residential care when the research says that does not work. It’s why we accept the existence of a revolving door where people with mental illness and addiction fill prison and jail cells one day and reoffend the next.
This brings us back to the intersection of Maslow Street and Quixote Avenue.
Don Quixote is the book from which we get the concept of “tilting at windmills.” Don Quixote is a retired country gentleman who has become obsessed with books of chivalry. He reads hundreds of them and is inspired to don a suit of armor and go out as a knight to right the wrongs of the world. 
The book chronicles his adventures, some sad and tragic, many humorous and all undertaken out of a deep conviction that he’s been called to make the world a better place. Those whom Don Quixote encounters along the way do not always appreciate him or his intent to disrupt the flow of their lives.
Having come to the aid of many, this self- proclaimed Knight has an epiphany. He says to Sancho Panza, “The greatest adversary love has in this world is hunger and continued need.” Hmmm. Sounds a bit like Maslow, huh?
Don Quixote’s family and friends believe him to be insane, try to “call him home” back to their reality. Even his closest friend Sancho is unsure but is always by his side. You’ll need a Sancho Panza if you are going to tilt at windmills and unless you are willing to tilt at the windmills of our culture, you will remain unchanged and the people you serve will as well.
If you live at the intersection of 24th and Capitol, you‘ll not have to concern yourself with that because everyone there thinks alike. They’ve built the windmills and don’t want anyone tilting at them.
But at intersection of Maslow and Quixote…you’ll find yourself deeply moved just as Don Quixote was you’ll be inspired to go out into the community as an advocate, and you’ll not be any better received than was he.
You’ll have to ask why the courts are satisfied with such poor outcomes, why they and others in the courtroom don’t use practices we know can make a difference, why they are more interested in output than they are outcomes. You’ll have to ask why treatment professionals do not do a better job of focusing on early interventions and the trauma experienced in the lives of the children they see or why they are not using the medications that have been developed to reduce the cravings of addiction and a lot of other questions that will cause you to be seen as a troublemaker.
You can’t represent the interests of the children and families without being an advocate for changing the way the courts, the schools, the mental health centers, the state agencies and others do business. Tilt at the windmills, ask the hard questions knowing those questions will get you crosswise with the powers that be…but unless you ask them you cannot change anything, yourselves or those you serve.
Caring more about your clients than about what judges, mental health center directors, county attorneys, and legislators think of you will mean your epitaph will read less like the one written by the poet for those living at 24th and Capitol…“Personally, though I haven’t changed much over the years” to that written for Don Quixote, the knight who chose to tilt at rather than erect the windmills.
Here lies the mighty gentleman…who rose to such heights of valor…that death itself did not triumph. He did not esteem the world, he was indeed a frightening threat to it…for it was his great good fortune to have lived as a madman and have died sane!
Here’s hoping you and I will have the great good fortune to have lived as troublemakers and to have died as change makers!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Now it’s up to this legislature to decide between bar owners and innocent victims.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has laid it in the lap of the legislature. The Court recently decided a case involving a drunk driver who killed an innocent husband and wife. Because of a law enacted by the legislature nearly two decades ago, the bar won, the innocent victims lost. Now it’s up to this legislature to decide once again between bar owners and innocent victims.

The facts of the case are troubling. According to the Court, “Prior to the accident, (the drunk driver) became intoxicated as a result of consuming alcoholic beverages at the Stockman’s Bar in Basin, Wyoming, and the Smokehouse Saloon in Greybull, Wyoming. (The drunk driver’s) conduct at both establishments showed that he was highly intoxicated, and such conduct was obvious and noticeable to anyone in his presence. Nevertheless, the employees at both establishments continued to serve alcoholic beverages to (the intoxicated patron).”

You might think your elected representatives would want to end drunk driving and protect innocent victims. You’d be sadly mistaken. Of course some do but the majority of the legislature wants to make certain liquor dealers are protected from lawsuits even when they act as egregiously as those in this case who allegedly served too much for too long.

In 1983, the Court decided a similar case allowing victims of drunk drivers to sue bars when they continue serving an already drunk patron. The liquor dealers marched immediately into the State capitol and used their connections and considerable political influence to enact the “Pontius Pilate” law allowing those responsible to wash their hands of any liability when innocent people are victims of drunk drivers.

With straight faces they argued the responsibility should fall only on the shoulders of the intoxicated driver making sure they could continue to serve even “highly intoxicated” customers while avoiding responsibility for any tragedy that would inevitably follow. Victims of drunk drivers don’t have as good lobbyists as do the purveyors of alcohol. Still you’d hope elected legislators would make their case about where the “personal responsibility” ought to lie.

According to medical standards, “A person is said to suffer from alcohol intoxication when the quantity of alcohol the person consumes exceeds the individual's tolerance for alcohol and produces behavioral or physical abnormalities. In other words, the person's mental and physical abilities are impaired. The person can't function and certainly should not be operating a motor vehicle.” The legal definition is more succinct. Intoxication is a “state in which a person's normal capacity to act or reason is inhibited by alcohol or drugs. Generally, an intoxicated person is incapable of acting as an ordinary prudent and cautious person would act under similar conditions.”
As a customer becomes obviously intoxicated, “personal responsibility” necessarily shifts to the sober person who continues to take the drunk person’s money in exchange for even more alcohol. By definition, a person who is intoxicated is incapable of making good decisions including decisions about whether or not to drive. At the point the customer’s bad choice to drink in excess crosses the line to intoxication, he becomes a serious threat to public safety.
Lawmakers now must balance the political clout of bar owners with the need to protect innocent lives. This time we hope they’ll listen less to liquor dealers and take this threat more seriously. No one can feign surprise when a customer whose drunkenness is, as the Wyoming Supreme Court noted, “obvious and noticeable to anyone in his presence” leaves the bar and drives down the road where they kill innocent victims. Those who make a profit from serving alcohol in excess should not be immune from paying the tragic costs.
Nonetheless, the Wyoming Supreme Court and victims alike are helpless in the face of the legislature’s willingness to protect bar owners. “The point is that the legislature, a policy-making branch of government, chose not to place that duty upon the alcohol provider.” But voters are not helpless. Voters should demand an explanation from those they elect. Ask them who they represent, liquor dealers or their innocent victims?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A 9/11 Sermon

“Remembrance, Healing and Hope”
September 11, 2011 sermon of Rev. Rodger McDaniel-Highlands Presbyterian Church

It’s been 10 years since those airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Hard to believe isn’t it. Hard to believe it’s been that long, harder to believe it ever happened. Like the events of November 22nd, 1963 it sometimes seems like only yesterday…because surely events of that long ago cannot bring fresh tears to our eyes…but they do!
I so dread preaching on days like this. Long ago I looked ahead at the calendar and when I saw that September 11th fell this year of all years on a Sunday, I groaned. I dislike preaching on days that are animated more by nationalism than faith, days when it seems so hard for Americans to distinguish between patriotic instincts and the teachings of Jesus. Like Jonah, I looked for a way out, but like Jonah, I realized there was none.
As much as I wanted to not preach this day, I also wanted to be with you and others trying to make some sense of what happened ten years ago and all that has happened since. The most confusing and baffling events of our lives are best understood in community. When we try to understand such event alone, we often reach conclusions that are at best driven by ego or fear and at worst by notions of revenge and hate.
10 years later we are as confused as we were that morning. Why did Al-Qaeda attack America? Why are we still at war, who are we fighting, what do we hope to achieve? Are we safer? Is the world safer? How should Christians respond? Where is God in all of this?
As we try to sort it all out, the death on that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the suffering ever since in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere…as we look back and move forward…let’s look at the dialogue about suffering and evil in the Book of Job. God is listening carefully as Job and his three friends try to understand why evil happens just as God is listening to us try to understand the events we commemorate today.
After Job’s suffering became too great to handle, he became angry with God and cursed the day he was born, his friend Eliphaz reminds Job that “affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble simply sprout from the ground.” Eliphaz believes we bring on our own suffering.
4:7…“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Do you hear yourself in the argument of Eliphaz? How about Job’s response. “If I have sinned, why does God not forgive me? Why does God instead cause me to suffer?”
7:17…”What are human beings,” asks Job, “that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?”  .The argument among Job and his friends rages as the arguments have since 9/11. But we’ve not engaged in the dialogue Job and his friends had. We have sought revenge rather than understanding. Is revenge a Christian response?
As I thought about today it came to me that perhaps the greatest of all symbols of use in developing a Christian response to 9/11 is the deep, dark cloud of smoke spreading and lingering as the towers collapsed, crumbled and fell. In the last few days the image of the dark cloud enveloping New York has been played and replayed on television, kindling our memories of the fear the cloud brought to an entire nation.
I woke this morning with that cloud on my mind and then God crossed my mind with the words of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
In many ways, you and I have been preparing to understand this day for the last 20 months, making our way slowly through the Old Testament as a means of understanding the New. As we studied the OT, some of you have told me how surprised you are to learn of the level of violence portrayed in the history retold in those books. The OT is indeed an “eye for an eye” world where violence begat violence.
The word “forgive” is never used in the OT except when humans ask God to forgive them…never used to describe how it is humans are to maintain relationships with one another through the forgiveness of one another.
Just as the dark cloud hung over Manhattan ten years ago this very minute, so it was a dark cloud hung over all of humanity until the light of Jesus shined through the darkness.
And early in the first of the Gospels, Jesus speaks of how much his birth has changed the world, teaching us to pray for the forgiveness of those who do us harm. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors, for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
A Christian response to suffering begins with Jesus and Jesus teaches it begins with forgiveness. Forgiveness begins with understanding. If we cannot understand, we cannot forgive and if we cannot forgive others, we cannot seek forgiveness ourselves.

Taking revenge without coming to understand why the acts of terror took place will not make us safer nor will it bring justice, nor will it make us followers of Jesus. Job 19.28-29 If you say, ‘How we will persecute him!’ and, ‘The root of the matter is found in him’; be afraid of the sword, for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, so that you may know there is a judgment.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns, "Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword.”
Yet Job speaks for many of us in asking “where is the vengeance? Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol. They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways. What is the Almighty that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’ Is not their prosperity indeed their own achievement?
Job may speak for us in his hope for revenge but Jesus speaks TO us about forgiveness. Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Today, again, God responds. God asked Job then as God asks us these ten years later, “Who are you to play God? Who are you to cast judgment, to exact punishment for those things you have not sought to understand? What makes you believe you alone are innocent?” Only God’s hands are clean.
Let us use this day to remember not only those who died on 9/11 but those throughout time who have died at the hands of those with ill motives for unjust reasons in every land, hands including our own, lands including our own. Let us use this day to think not about revenge but about how Christians can lead the world to heal. Let us use this day to replace the shifting sands of fear and hate with a sound foundation of hope.
Remember the dark cloud moving across Manhattan on that terrible morning but not without think of Jesus as the light shining even in that darkness, and don’t allow the darkness to overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
As followers of Jesus, we must also replace thoughts of vengeance and judgment with hope…the kind of hope God had for the world when the suffering of his son on the cross was answered not be revenge but by resurrection.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Marriage Equality would be good for Wyoming's soul...and her economy!

The economic and political windfall to Wyoming might be greater than you might think if the legislature joins other states permitting same-sex marriage. First we could reclaim the pride of being the “Equality State.”
Nearly all states have an official motto which serves as shorthand for what really matters to its people. My favorite is Serit ut alteri, North Dakota’s motto, meaning “one sows for the benefit of another age.” Many are expressed in Latin. Wyoming’s motto is plain English, “Equal Rights”
Wyoming became “the Equality State” as the first to grant women the right to vote. The powerful white males who made that call didn’t do so because of any deep commitment to the rights of women. The legislature didn’t even ratify the 19th Amendment until 26 other states had done so and the final outcome was inevitable. But they were practical men who understood women were needed in order to attain the requisite number of voters to qualify for statehood. It was not liberal reformers but practical and conservative Wyoming politicians who earned that motto. That was 1869. It’s time for conservative, practical legislators to earn it again.
There were practical benefits to giving women the right to vote. So there are in providing marriage equality. There are more than 1100 economic benefits available under law to heterosexual couples denied to same-sex couples. The economics of discrimination weigh heavily in favor of recognizing the validity of all marriages. Benefits denied range from spousal and child support to certain inheritance and property ownership rights. Most states, including ours don’t even protect the right to be employed for same sex partners.
The economic benefits of permitting same-sex unions would ripple throughout the state’s entire economy in surprising ways and amounts. A study conducted by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law concluded Vermont’s recognition of same sex marriage will inject $30.6 million over three years into that state’s economy, generating increases in state and local government tax and fee revenues by $3.3 million while adding approximately 700 new jobs. Vermont has roughly the same population as Wyoming, depends as heavily on tourism and expects more than 8,000 same-sex couples to travel there as a result of the new law.
Imagine the international allure of Wyoming’s tourist destinations were legislators to open this new vista of freedom. Given our location near the center of the nation and reputation for environmental beauty, it’s not hard to believe Wyoming would experience an even greater fiscal windfall than Vermont.
Numerous studies, including one by the Brookings Institute, document the economic impact of state laws that eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians who, as a group, tend to be creative entrepreneurs with larger than average amounts of disposable and investable income.
Marriage equality happens to have the added advantage of being the right thing to do. It seems conservative, libertarian, “live and let live folks” wouldn’t be inclined to allow government to determine who we can marry. But politics is a strange business where labels, like mottos, are beguiling. Same-sex marriage is often thought a “liberal” agenda. However, the belief that government should allow people to live free lives with minimal government intervention is, like Wyoming, quite conservative and the reasons for doing so persuasively practical.
There’s a curious thing about freedom. Governments create unexpected and positive economic, cultural and political rewards as they unleash the human potential of those who have been marginalized whether in Libya or in Wyoming.  Equality is a concept of liberty and freedom given definition only by historical context. Wyoming earned the right to be called “the Equality State” in 1869, one hundred forty-two years ago. Wyoming would do well to shed a reputation for intolerance acquired from the Matthew Shepherd murder and last year’s thorny debates in the legislature by once again taking a practical and conservative stand for equality.

Monday, September 5, 2011

If someone has to suffer, we want to make sure it is someone else.

 The following are excerpts from my sermon yesterday at Highlands Presbyterian Church. The subject was the Book of Job
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “We know so little about life that we really don’t know the good news from the bad.”  It is like an automatic reply I received this week to a mass email I sent to local pastors. I had asked for an automated response. It read, “Your message has been displayed to the user. There is no guarantee that the message was read or understood.”

Think about that for a moment. Think about that as you listen to Job’s story. Ask yourself what it was that caused most of Job’s suffering…the death of his children and grandchildren, the infliction of bodily pain or was it something else…was it Job’s expectation of the nature of God or was it indeed the nature of God?
Once upon a time, there was man named Job, one of the wisest and richest men who had ever lived, a very good and fine man. Job walked with God, was blameless and upright and did everything to avoid evil. He was truly a man of God. Job understood the rules of scripture. Follow all of the commands of God and you can expect to live a good and prosperous life.
One day, an angel, standing before the council was asked by God, “Where have you been lately Satan?” Satan replied, “I have been out there, roaming around the earth.” God said, “Yes, I know. In your wanderings, did you see my servant Job? A man who loves me, is upright and does everything to avoid evil.” Satan said, “O yes, I have seen your servant, Job. You protect Job from all the disasters and if you, God, did not protect him from all those disasters, he would not be so obedient to you. He is obedient to you because he knows that you will protect him. If you take all his protection away, he will curse you.” God said, “Go ahead. We’ll see what happens.”
The next day, it all came crashing down. Have you ever had that happen where you thought life was going along smoothly and in one day, your house of cards came crashing down, a total disaster. That is what happened to Job.
Three friends come to visit him. Job was sitting there in the dump and these three friends see the disasters that have happened to Job. For seven days, the friends say nothing. Meanwhile, Job was simmering and simmering and simmering and on the seventh day, Job’s anger explodes when he said, “Curse be the day that I was born. Curse by the night that I was born. My pain is so great that I want to die. God has been miserable to me.”
Now, the three friends had carefully read Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon and the prophets. These three friends knew the rules. They knew that if Job was suffering, it was his fault, his parent’s fault, or his children’s fault. Somebody has to be blamed. And so, for the next thirty chapters, these three friends stick it to him, trying to convince Job that he is at fault.
Which brings us full circle back to Kurt Vonnegut who said, “We know so little about life that we really don’t know the good news from the bad.” Certainly the deal struck between God and Satan to test Job was bad news for Job…or was it? Certainly Job coming to an understanding that he understood nothing about God and was ashamed for having questioned God was good news…or was it?
The Bible clearly teaches from Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Kings and the Psalms, the Proverbs and the prophets that if you walk in God’s ways, God will bless you. Surely that’s good news? But it wasn’t for Job and is often not for us.
The one thing humans have learned about suffering is that if someone has to suffer do everything you can to make sure it’s someone else. We see that in negative attitudes toward immigrants. We see it in support for war anywhere else on the grounds that if we don’t fight them THERE, we will have to fight them HERE.
We see the efforts to shift the threat of suffering from ourselves to others in our stinginess toward the poor, in attitudes about race, in the unwillingness to provide universal health care. We see it in the total disregard for how we impact the rest of the world when Americans use most of its resources, leaving relatively little food, energy, clean water to the billions living in poverty in other undeveloped nations.
Too much public policy in America starts with protecting our own security, comfort and safety with little regard for how it affects others. If someone has to suffer, we want to make sure it is someone else. But suffering cannot be avoided. It comes all too often in all too many forms. It is a part of the world God created, thus the dialogue of the Book of Job.
Even the Son of God could not avoid suffering…so why would we think we should be exempt.
Where then does that leave us? Uncertain. Uncertain about ourselves and God. Is that good news??? Or bad? Our fears make it bad news but it is our faith that creates an opportunity to transform suffering into good news. I am not saying we should roll over and accept suffering. But I am saying we should, where we can, take our fair share of it and use the experience to change that which creates suffering in our homes, lives and communities. If we can trust God and ourselves enough to abandon expectations about how things should become more aware of the way things actually are…I think we can come to know that the news is not either good or bad. It is simply the news.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What other basic needs of school children are not being met?

Our church, Highlands Presbyterian, has joined others soliciting donations of school supplies for the children of low income families. As the reams of paper, packages of pencils, crayons and backpacks gathered on our altar, it occurred to me this effort is like collecting Christmas food baskets in December. While helpful, it’s a temporary fix that ignores larger issues. If some are left to solicit charities for school supplies, what other basic needs of school children are not being met.
A study published at disclosed one-third of Wyoming’s K-12 students live below the poverty level. Many families living above have an equally difficult time affording the considerable costs of providing student supplies. Costs of supplies, coupled with the need to clothe children, add up quickly to an unaffordable amount in many households. The inevitable result is donations don’t meet the need. Children are left behind.
Wyoming ranks first in the nation in funding public education. So why are churches gathering supplies and students knocking on doors seeking contributions for school activities? It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Drafters of the Wyoming Constitution intended education to be free. Article 7, Section 1, “The legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction, embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade…”
Article 7, Section 4 discusses use of county school and other funds, “the income of which shall be appropriated exclusively to the use and support of free public schools in the several counties of the state.” They couldn’t have been more clear than this, “The legislature shall make such further provision by taxation or otherwise, as with the income arising from the general school fund will create and maintain a thorough and efficient system of public schools, adequate to the proper instruction of all youth of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, free of charge…” (Article 7, Section 9).
Wyoming’s Constitution was written by those who believed public education should be, as Horace Mann advocated, “one and the same, for both rich and poor.” But it is not.

In the early years of Governor Freudenthal’s administration, the Wyoming Business Alliance partnered with the Departments of Family Service and Education to address the failure of Wyoming schools to meet the needs of children. We identified a Mississippi program of coordinated school health which had rescued a rural school district from high juvenile arrests and teen pregnancies, substantial drop out rates and academic failure.  They sought to first assure each child’s basic needs were met. Children innately desire to succeed. Barriers, ranging from health problems to hunger, present impediments. Their schools and communities made it a priority to eliminate impediments. If children were hungry, they were fed. If they needed glasses, medical care, shoes, or school supplies, they were provided.

Within a few years the juvenile arrest rate plummeted, teen pregnancies fell to zero, graduation rates topped 90% and children achieved measurably greater academic success. The program worked in Mississippi and should have worked here but for the failure of local control advocates to advocate equally loud for their students.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort from state leaders. The Business Alliance brought Dr. Pat Cooper, the superintendent of that school district to Wyoming to tell the story to hundreds of people. DFS and WDE funded a documentary, sending it to hundreds of school board members, legislators and other community leaders explaining how coordinated school health could improve education in Wyoming. WDE funded start-up grants. DFS funded fact finding trips to Mississippi so state leaders could see it firsthand.

As with far too many good ideas, when the champions are gone, so are the ideas. Inertia replaced the initial excitement and we are where we are.

There’s nothing wrong with churches and charities collecting school supplies, food and clothing for needy children unless those efforts are unaccompanied by a demand to know why a school system spending 1.2 billion dollars a year cannot meet the basic needs of its students and the promises of the Constitution for a free education.