21 Aug

On stage and off, Roe still has different meanings to different people

ASHLAND – About halfway through the performance of “Roe,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s world premiere drama about the actual people involved in Roe v. Wade, one character marvels about how long the dispute has lasted.

It’s 1994, the character Sarah Weddington —who successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court as a newer-than-novice 26-year-old lawyer – tells a TV reporter, and somehow we’re still talking about it.

Off the stage, of course, it’s now 2016, and the argument isn’t over, or even at a lower decibel level. In the audience, in what may be the most pro-choice city in what may be the most pro-choice state, a crowd that seems somewhat younger than the typical OSF audience applauds speeches by abortion-rights supporting characters, and greets opposing characters with silent suspicion – a response having nothing to do with the quality of the acting. Across the continent, Merrick Garland is in his unprecedented sixth month as a Supreme Court nominee ignored by the U.S. Senate, mostly because of Roe v. Wade. Around the country, courts continue to deal with imaginative stratagems by state legislatures to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision without its being actually reversed.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, we have two tickets with four abortion positions. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton fully supports abortion rights, while running mate Tim Kaine’s position is that he’s personally opposed but won’t make the decision for other people – essentially, anti-abortion but pro-choice – the default position for many Democrats, especially Catholics, since Mario Cuomo.

This spring, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the GOP candidate for vice president, signed one of the nation’s most restrictive state abortion laws, banning abortions on the basis of race, sex or disability – with prosecution of doctors in violation – and requiring physicians to provide patients with the “remains” after an abortion. The law has since been blocked by a federal judge. Presidential nominee Donald Trump, who once said he was “very pro-choice,” this year suggested that prosecution should extend to women who have abortions – one of five stances on abortion The Washington Post counted him taking in three days.

So maybe there are more than four positions on abortion on the two tickets.

And when the Clinton campaign tries to rally skeptical Sanders enthusiasts by talking about the Supreme Court, or Trump supporters warn dubious Republicans about Clinton’s potential judicial nominations, neither side is referring to tax policy.

Forty-three years after Roe v. Wade, the issue seems to get into everything. Funding to defend against the Zika virus was blocked before Congress went on vacation, because Republicans insisted on including shots against Planned Parenthood and Democrats refused. Republicans such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have already declared that if the virus, causing microcephaly and reduced bran function in newborns, is diagnosed in pregnant women, abortion should not be considered an option.

The sympathies of “Roe” are clear, and so are those of much of its audience. “Roe” draws a different crowd of playgoers than, say, “Timon of Athens,” young women wearing belly shirts reading “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” or recalling friends’ abortions as they wait for the house lights to go down.

But the play refuses to make things easy for anybody. Its title “Roe” is not only shorthand for a historic Supreme Court decision, but also for the plaintiff “Jane Roe,” actually Norma McCorvey. She becomes first a symbol for abortion rights supporters and then for anti-abortion forces – publishing two books that remember the same events very differently. McCorvey as a character is set against Weddington, whose life also turns out differently than she expected, with her first case following her through her entire career. History and legal cases, the play reminds us, are about people, individuals who can find themselves tossed about by forces much larger than themselves.

The point is sharpened by a late-appearing character (actually, less a character than a dramatic device), who has faced the full obstacle course placed before abortion seekers in 2016 – traveling to a friendlier state, waiting period, anti-abortion demonstrators – and demands that Weddington tell her what to do.

Weddington, sounding less certain than you might expect from someone who has made history, says she can’t tell somebody else what to do; she can only say it needs to be her own choice.

At the play’s end, from opposite sides of the stage, Weddington, the abortion rights legal legend, and McCorvey, the newly anointed anti-abortion symbol, declare together, “Roe still stands” – but Weddington means the decision, and McCorvey means the person.

After 43 years, the abortion debate is still people using the same words but meaning different things – on or off the stage.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/21/16.

09 Aug

A Head Start problem so clear that even senators — bipartisanly — can see it

In the middle of what may be the country’s most bitterly divided July since Gettysburg, Jeff Merkley actually wrote the Obama administration a bipartisan letter. The Oregon Democratic senator joined with Republican colleague Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and their letter drew signatures from 17 other senators – 12 Democrats, four Republicans and one independent, which in our current political atmosphere makes this practically a spiritual moment.

And the letter even made sense.

In a recent policy change, the feds have ruled that any Head Start program scoring in the bottom 10 percent in any of three areas has to recompete for its authorization. This turns the evaluation process into a game of Musical Chairs – except that, since nobody knows where the bottom 10 percent line will be, nobody knows how many chairs there are – and sends programs into months of uncertainty and distraction before 83 percent of them get reauthorized anyway.

Even if your goal is to make sure that four-year-olds don’t get too comfortable, CLASS – the Classroom Assessment Scoring System – seems like a clumsy approach.

Continuing to use the 10 percent standard in the Designation Renewal System, wrote the senators to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, “will continue to cause undue and unnecessary burden on grantees, result in wasteful use of Head Start grantee resources, and fail to … serve as a tool for improving the quality of Head Start services in a transparent, reliable, valid and timely way.”

Not to mention that “The operational stress this creates is felt at every level and has contributed to staff turnover in many communities.”
Suey Linzmeier, who runs Head Start of Yamhill County in McMinnville, can testify to that. Recently, her consistently successful program had to recompete because not all staff members had been tested for tuberculosis –although the county health department said there was no TB in Yamhill County. As a result, Linzmeier said last week, the program “had to do a lot of paperwork, get letters from people and devote a lot of staffwork” to get recertified.

“Head Start supporters in Oregon,” she said about Merkley’s effort, “very much support the letter.”

Oregon has more than 16,000 kids in Head Start, all around the state. The various programs, Linzmeier points out, try to work together and learn from each other, which can get complicated when nobody wants to be in the bottom 10 percent – even by a tiny amount.

In Pennsylvania, the Family and Community Christian Association Twin Creeks Head Start is now recompeting for its grant after scoring 5.31 in Classroom Observation, with a cut-off of 5.36.

“Our score is still a quality score,” said executive director Judy Ventresca. “We missed it by 5/100th of a point.”

That’s one thing in the Olympics. It’s something else in undermining a 40-year-old program.

Especially when the standard is dubious.

Alan Guttman, at the Center for Technology in Education at Johns Hopkins, has been telling this to anyone who would listen – and a lot of bureaucrats who won’t.

“They’re ignoring their own data,” Guttman said last week, “and their own rules on how the data should be used.

“The data is a tool for providing a way for programs to improve. Using it as a way to evaluate an entire program is not a valid use.”

That was, Guttman says, clear when the legislation was passed. It’s become even more true since the classroom observation times have been cut in half, to two 20-minute observations per teacher – a way, D.C. officials say, to include more classrooms in a program’s evaluation.

Those kind of snapshot checks, Guttman points out, can have distortions – a teacher can have a bad day, a student can have a bad day, the weather might be lousy. It’s no way to make a judgment of five one-hundredths of a point.

But while nobody’s been listening to him, says Guttman, “A letter from 19 senators will have an impact” – certainly making it to the secretary’s desk. The signatures run from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to conservative Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas, and include seven members of the Senate committee that oversees the department and the program.

“We’ll be pushing the department,” said Merkley recently. “The evaluations are very subjective; two or three people might have different reactions to the same class. The evaluations have to be designed in a substantially different way.”

Head Start doesn’t come up for congressional reauthorization until 2018. But Merkley figures that with the right encouragement, the department could change things before then.

If 13 Democratic senators, five Republicans and Bernie Sanders can sign the same letter, maybe anything’s possible.

NOTE: This columnn appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/7/16.