News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

NRA and shot cops offer little comfort

My nephew was sworn in as a Massachusetts State Trooper a few weeks ago, a proud moment for my family, as well as one of continuing alarm as we hear more and more stories about officers shot in the line of duty.

Saturday’s Boston Globe had front-page stories in the Metro section about shootings in Greenland, NH, where Police Chief  Michael Maloney was killed one week shy of his retirement, as well as a shooting rampage in Chicopee on Friday, where State Trooper  John Vasquez was shot by a man with an automatic rifle; many civilians, including a school bus full of children, narrowly averted harm during the six-minute shootout in Chicopee. All this was juxtaposed for me by an article in the same paper regarding Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s speech to the NRA attacking President’s Obama’s position on the right to bear arms.

Excuse me if I’m not feeling too concerned about waiting periods and background checks for gun permit applicants, or a ban on assault weapons, which the NRA opposes.  Romney avoided mention of the controversial stand-your-ground laws currently being debated across the country and here in the Commonwealth, which are laws the NRA supports.

Depending on the state and exact language of the law, stand-your-ground legislation does not require civilians to retreat, if able, when attacked, but instead grants them the right to fight back, even in public, and to do lethal harm–all under the guise of self-defense. Aside from using this law as an excuse for deadly barroom brawls and gang encounters, other problems with the law are discussed here in this Florida article, where it notes “analysis of state data shows deaths due to self-defense are up over 200% since the law took effect,” as well as this piece from Tampa Bay News listing some examples that show, such as in the Trayvon Martin case, the victims are often unarmed.

It’s all starting to feel like the Wild West and not in a good way. It’s tough enough when bad guys have easy access to assault weapons, but to give anyone on the street access to weapons and permission to use them under the slightest provocation is a path, frankly, that terrifies me. Ask your legislators NOT to support this bill. Keep the waiting periods and background checks, increase efforts to get illegal guns off the streets, make it harder for bad guys to get weapons, and enact stiffer punishments for having them. There is no easy solution to the gunfire madness that is American society, but the NRA approach is definitely not helpful. We must demand our leaders take the steps necessary to protect our law enforcement officers and our communities.

posted in In the News, National issues, State Concerns | 0 Comments

Focus on facts instead of fury of the few

Despite local media reports about alleged, overwhelming anger directed at Congresswoman Niki Tsongas at yesterday’s senior women’s breakfast in Chelmsford (Seniors take Tsongas to Task), the other perspective on the story is that the anger was media hype combined with a dash of mistaken identity. Apparently, it was not female senior citizens who had the most strongly worded comments for Tsongas and who took up most of the time allotted for questions, but instead, a group of vocal Tea Party crashers, most of whom were not women. (See this video of the event.) That’s not to say you can’t have concerns about the sweeping legislation or that there aren’t folks out there with them, but the most important aspect of all this is to get the facts. Tsongas explains here in today’s Sun how health care reform will reduce the deficit, cut waste in medicare, and end taxpayer subsidies for private insurers’ overpayment and inefficiency. Another Sun article explains the medicare costs in detail, quoted in part, below (my bold):

Nearly $500 billion in cuts under the health-reform package include no direct reductions to traditional Medicare benefits, Tsongas said. Instead, the cuts will come largely from limits to growth in future Medicare spending over the next 10 years and lower government funding of private Medicare Advantage plans. About 25 percent of all Medicare recipients get health care through these plans, including 7,400 in the 5th Congressional District, that generally reduce what people have to pay from their own pockets for medical services.

‘The small premiums are from the government paying out about 14 percent more for Advantage than it costs to cover seniors in traditional Medicare,’ Tsongas said. ‘You have to say what’s fair and what’s wasteful,’ Tsongas said. ‘Paying more for a select group is not fair to the majority receiving traditional Medicare and it’s misspending taxpayers dollars.’

While premiums for Advantage plans are likely to rise next year, ‘insurers cannot offer fewer benefits than the original Medicare plan, whether you’re on traditional Medicare or Medicare Advantage,’ Tsongas added. AARP Massachusetts, and other advocates for seniors, support health-care reform and insist the landmark bill will strengthen the overall Medicare program and benefit seniors.”

posted in Local Politics, National issues | 0 Comments

Should we worry about the Tea Party movement?

We’d like to introduce a new contributor to our blog. Mark is a friend and middle school math teacher who doesn’t live in the area, but whose varied interests in history, education, politics and economics (and baseball) always spark lively conversations. He’s agreed to post periodically, and we hope you’ll enjoy his insights as we do. Welcome, Mark!

The Tea Party movement has filled the political frame for parts of the last year. They’ve worked hard to scare Americans into thinking that socialism, fascism, or communism is around the corner. In doing so they almost derailed Obama’s health care bill. Many Democrats worry that the Tea Party folks are going to inspire a right-wing return to power – first in the mid-term elections this fall and then in 2012 when Obama runs for reelection. I think these fears are overblown.

For one, the Tea Party philosophy is so incoherent as to be hard to even discern. They are against growth in government and at the same time they want the government to create jobs. They are against “socialized” medicine but they defend (and use!) Medicare. Watch a series of interviews with folks at a Tea Party protest and it appears that a fair portion of them are literally unable to answer the simple question: “What is your program?” A crowd of angry people with neither focus nor leadership is quite capable of riling things up for a while but they rarely get anything accomplished over time.

Will they develop a clear focus that might allow them to carry out a plan? I doubt it. They want to take over the Republican Party but they actually oppose many of the ideals of the Republicans. The GOP has for decades been the party of Wall Street and corporate America while the Tea Party crowd maintain that they hate the power and influence of bankers and financiers. If they take over the GOP, they will disable it for a few years much the way the Goldwater “success” crippled the GOP in 1964. More likely, the Republicans will absorb and co-opt them and they will disappear the way so many movements have over the years.

It’s not that I think the Tea Party movement is going to simply disappear. More likely it will fade away slowly without accomplishing much. How could it accomplish much? The movement is mostly an angry reaction to the way American society is changing. And the Tea Partiers are powerless to change those trends.

posted in National issues | 0 Comments

State not awarded federal education funding

Today’s breaking news in the Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts was not named as one of the recipients for the first round of federal education money under Race To-The Top (RTTT) funding. Many folks were surprised to discover that Massachusetts, considered to have the best public schools in the nation based on national test scores, was not included in this first round of awards. The Commonwealth had been selected as one of 16 finalists among 40 state applications; yet, according to the Globe report, only Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million) won in the first round, with another $3.4 billion remaining to be awarded in June.

With the Massachusetts legislature indicating cuts in state aid for schools, the federal money is highly coveted. Lowell has been told it could see a four percent reduction in chapter 70 funds, state aid for education, which means the district will face an additional $7.5 million shortfall for next year. This on the heels of more than $8 million in cuts last year as well as eight years of consistently reducing positions (about 400 less positions) as revenue has not kept pace with costs.

posted in Education, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Health insurance reform brings hope and despair

Watching the votes for healthcare reform last night brought a mixed bag of hope and despair—hope that finally we would begin to move in the right direction, and despair that this issue would continue to divide our nation in harmful ways. The negative voices will not be silenced, and as always with criticism, the no voices appear louder and are more destructive. Today’s media coverage continues to be filled with the doomsayers and their horrific predictions about cost, bankruptcy, and cries of socialism as well as promises to repeal the law. I can’t help thinking back to the decision to invade Iraq when there was little talk of outrageous costs, or the number of lives that would be lost or damaged, or any plan for how it would end.  Aren’t many of today’s naysayers the same people who supported that expensive act of aggression, and who now claim we can’t afford to provide decent healthcare to our citizens? This bill, as imperfect as it is, is where we begin because without it, we have no national starting point (see today’s Boston Globe for the bill’s impact on the Commonwealth’s healthcare reform).  

Amid all these accusations and predictions of doom, however, there is another very real and great loss we all share. That is, the loss of belief in our system of government.  Both sides of the aisle have become so divided as to be nearly paralyzed except for exchanging barbs, and citizens are disillusioned with the prevailing sense that all government is corrupt, all politicians self-serving, and there is little to be hopeful about. For that reason, I was comforted by James Carroll’s column about spring and moving forward, about human spirit, and our ability to change. As hopeful as Carroll seems and as much as I applaud the healthcare reform bill, there are many who are strongly opposed, who gather strength in their own negativity and promotion of fear. Somehow we must find a way to come together as Americans, regardless of party, to solve the difficult challenges ahead. To do that, we need true leadership that will inspire people to believe in democracy again, to insist we work together, and to show that better days lie ahead for all of us. During an election year, that will not happen unless citizens demand it.

posted in In the News, National issues | 0 Comments

Washington legislators in Lowell to talk jobs

If you’re around this weekend, you’ll want to attend a  meeting with Senator John Kerry and Representative Niki Tsongas on Saturday, Jan. 30, at 9 a.m. at Middlesex Community College’s Federal Building, 33 Kearney Square in Lowell. State Senator Steve Panagiotakos, chair of ways and means, will also be there along with civic, business and labor leaders. The purpose of the meeting is to share information, and discuss jobs, the Merrimack Valley, and ways to invigorate the economy. Attend this public meeting to learn firsthand from people making decisions that will impact our recovery rate, and take the opportunity to have your concerns and ideas heard.

posted in Local Politics, Money Matters, National issues | 0 Comments

Supreme Court decision bad for democracy

It made me sick to read today’s front-page headlines in the Boston Globe and the New York Times about the Supreme Court decision to allow corporations unlimited contributions in federal elections. The Times also ran an editorial that puts the impact of this decision in perspective. As Marie reports here, UMass Chancellor and former U.S. Representative Marty Meehan had a similar reaction. While supporters and the prevailing justices tried to frame this as a free speech issue, this ruling has opened the floodgates for undue influence from special interest groups with deep pockets—a decision that will seriously impact the number and diversity of candidates able to run viable campaigns as well as the effectiveness of incumbents to enact reforms that big business doesn’t like. Also, be prepared for the domino effect because state and local election rules likely will be next. One of the reasons I supported the Fair Vote Lowell campaign to change the city’s charter for electing local candidates was the money issue. It is already difficult for a good candidate to run an effective campaign without friends with deep pockets. In local elections, we have seen some candidates spend $100K in a state representative race, upwards of $40K for city council, and nearly $20K for a seat on the school committee. (Not that spending money always equals victory, but money buys visibility to reach voters, which becomes even more critical in larger races.) No matter how you twist it, this issue is NOT about free speech. It is about rich special interest groups having undue influence on a person’s ability to stay in office or get elected. Unchecked, this ruling will result in incumbents who cannot challenge special interest groups without serious consequences, candidates who will not be able to win without befriending big business, and many good people who will not even try. It is tough enough to get people to run for office. Making it all about the money is the exact wrong way to go.

posted in In the News, Local Politics, Money Matters, National issues | 2 Comments

Non-voters along for a rudderless ride

Imagine you and your loved ones in the back seat of a car with no say in the speed or direction the driver takes. Would you really allow that to happen? Yet, every election it seems voter turnout hovers at 25% or worse. That’s a lot of people going along for the ride. I had an argument with a beloved family member on Christmas day, who told me not to judge her because she didn’t choose to vote, didn’t bother to register, and didn’t pay attention to “politicians who say whatever it takes to get elected.” Excuse me, but I will judge you—as stupid and lazy—not to participate in what is our responsibility and privilege as American citizens: That is, the opportunity to decide our leadership. I know we’re all busy, many politicians have become entertaining spin-doctors who feed the electorate what they think we want to hear, and often it feels like any election is deciding the lesser of evils as opposed to choosing truly talented and inspiring leadership. That’s no excuse. We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors, and especially our children to pay attention, so that we go to the polls as informed voters. Mind you, those last two are important: informed voters. It makes no sense to check boxes without knowing who and what you are supporting. And if you are truly disappointed by the quality of candidates, pull papers and run yourself, or encourage and support someone else running. The last thing you are allowed to do is check out of the system. With more folks willing to give up their say in the direction we’re all going, the likelihood of a driver who only listens to special interests or extremists increases exponentially. And if you think our elected leaders don’t impact you personally, add delusional to my earlier judgment.

Check out LiL or Dick Howe’s blog for information about registering by 8 p.m. tonight to vote in the special senatorial election on Jan. 19.

posted in Local Politics, National issues, State Concerns | 3 Comments

Commonwealth students still leading the pack

This week, the National Center for Education Statistics released the results of the 2009 national math test scores for fourth and eighth graders, which showed, once again, that Massachusetts leads the nation in student achievement. A national report card for math, the fourth-grade test results placed Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Vermont as the highest performing states while the District of Columbia, Alabama, Arizona and Louisiana were the lowest performing. When it came to educating fourth-grade minority students, Black students in Massachusetts scored higher than Black students in any other state while Montana did the same for their Hispanic students. At the eighth-grade level, Massachusetts had the highest scores and the state’s Black students also outperformed their peers across the country.

I’m not saying we don’t have too many students failing to reach proficiency or that the achievement gap, which has not changed, isn’t a problem in the Commonwealth. But as the state with the highest percentage of schools in some form of regulatory sanction as well as threats of takeover by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, perhaps our state education leaders could put at least some effort into promoting the good work our districts do with the nation’s highest-performing students to balance their excessive labeling and sanctioning of the Commonwealth’s public schools.

posted in Education, National issues, Success stories | 0 Comments

About the cost of health care

I’m not an expert on the health care issue, only a consumer who fortunately has spent most of her life with health insurance without ever really needing it—until recently—which has certainly changed my perspective on the whole debate. The primary reason opponents give for not supporting universal care is the expense. If it’s true, as I’ve heard, that health care premiums have gone up 119% over the last 10 years, while payments to doctors have remained fairly stagnant (rates set by private insurance companies), who is getting all the money? An article in Sunday’s Boston Globe got me thinking about cost from another perspective, such as how U.S. spending on health care compares to France:

“…the outcome is relatively cost-effective in comparison with the situations in other industrialized nations, according to tracking by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. France spent about $300 billion for the health needs of its 64 million people in 2007, the last year for which reliable statistics are available, the organization reported. That amounted to about 11 percent of gross domestic product for a system covering an estimated 99 percent of the population, well below what Americans pay for a system that leaves out tens of millions of people. On a per capita basis, France also ranked well below the United States in health expenditures. It was eighth on the organization’s list, while the United States ranked at the top. Despite the lower spending, French people have for years had a longer life expectancy than their counterparts in the United States, currently at 80.98 years compared with 78.11.”

In Lowell, rising health-insurance costs continue to be our biggest budget buster despite efforts to reduce expenses by encouraging employees to switch to less-expensive plans. During these tough fiscal times, the need for health care reform has never been stronger.

posted in In the News, Money Matters, National issues | 1 Comment

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