As these lines are being written in mid-May, our November election is shaping up as the most contentious and hazardous in modern history. Its outcome could be literally Earth-shattering. There is no need to review all of the many issues before us, as they are getting abundant coverage in the media (however sloppily), but three stand out as getting far too little attention: climate change and the escalating attacks on reproductive choice and public education.
“Climate change” is usually an inadequately explained catchall term that, as I wrote in the Washington Post on April 27, “is simply shorthand for a whole range of its concomitants, including environmental degradation, deforestation, desertification, atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane buildup, soil erosion and nutrient loss, toxic waste accumulation, sea-level rise, fishery and coral reef decline, biodiversity shrinkage, and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence.” Still more rarely discussed is what is driving climate change: human population, tripled since the end of World War II to well over seven billion. (See my April/May 2016 FI column.)
Closely related are the massive and unrelenting attacks on reproductive choice, contraception, and abortion rights, nearly all of them fanatically pushed forward by religious Right–driven campaigns aided and abetted by Republican politicians on the national, state, and local levels. Defunding Planned Parenthood and reproductive health services and passing laws to make contraception and abortion more expensive to obtain is particularly hard on young women and women of limited means. All this in turn fuels poverty and all that goes with it. Add to that the fact that grossly inadequate reproductive health-care in the less developed countries is further adding to world poverty, misery, disorder, and overpopulation. The annual world abortion rate is now fifty-six million! It should be obvious that failure to provide universal access to contraception, legal abortion, good sexuality education, and decent medical care—actually endorsed by the Republican President Gerald Ford more than forty years ago—can only exacerbate the climate-change steamroller.
Turning now to the rarely (and totally inadequately) reported attacks on the public schools that serve 90 percent of American kids, we are seeing increasing use of voucher and tax-credit plans to divert public funds to publicly unaccountable private schools, the vast majority of which are operated by two dozen different religious organizations—from Catholic to conservative Protestant, Jewish, and even Muslim. The vast majority of these private schools indoctrinate their students against contraception and abortion. Add to that the national crusade against sound sexuality education in public schools and the pouring of public funds into useless “abstinence only” sexuality education programs (for more details see Darrell Ray’s excellent 2012 book, Sex & God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality). We shouldn’t wonder, then, that we have an epidemic of teen pregnancies, failed early marriages (more common in very religious than in more secular states), and increasing poverty.
And then there is the increasingly inadequate and inequitably distributed funding of public schools, classes that are too large, inadequate health and social services for students, too much emphasis on testing, and the flagging efforts to deal with the increasing poverty of too many American families.
Related to the preceding is a new study by the National Center for Science Education (Spring 2016 “Reports”). Its survey of middle-school, earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics teachers found that three-fourths of them spend only a couple of hours dealing with climate change; that although 97 percent of climate scientists concur that climate change is driven by human activity, only two-thirds of the teachers agreed; that when asked what percentage of scientists concurred, the teachers’ average estimate was 72 percent, with 20 percent of teachers not even hazarding a guess; and that teachers and schools are being flooded with climate-change denial material from some of the same wealthy outfits promoting diversion of public funds to sectarian private schools. Conclusion: ignorance about climate change is not being alleviated.
Connecting the dots, it should be clear that if we lose the battle to save public education, we will also lose the battles over reproductive choice and climate change. These three major issues are inextricably intertwined. Win all or lose all.
So, what to do? That should be obvious. Minor and divisive matters need to be put off until after November. Concerned Americans across the spectrum—liberals, progressives, moderates, and responsible conservatives; people of all religious and nonreligious persuasions; whites, blacks, and Latinos—need to pull together, and not just on the presidential race but also on the equally important Senate, House, state, county, local, and school-board contests. As the old saying has it, we all hang together or we will hang separately.
A February poll in Ontario, Canada, found that Ontarians oppose tax support for Catholic schools by 52 percent to 38 percent. Ontario Education Ministry spokesperson Liz Sandals, however, said that the province will continue to provide full tax support for four—yes, four!—separate school systems: English-language public, French-language public, English Catholic, and French Catholic. The church-run schools get more money per student in public funding than the two public systems. This system goes back to Canada’s constitution, the British North America Act of 1867, which created modern Canada. Only four provinces require public funding for Catholic schools: Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Predominantly French and nominally Catholic, Quebec ended Catholic school funding in 1999. Newfoundland, which long had only tax-supported church-run schools (five systems of them), switched to public schools after two sweeping referenda in the 1990s.
In mid-March, Canadian columnist Samantha Emann wrote that it’s time to “put out the fire” in the burning debate over Catholic-school funding. Changing the constitution requires only the approval of the House of Commons and the Senate and, importantly, only in the province that is affected. Emann noted that this is what happened regarding Quebec in 1999.
“Publicly funded Catholic schools,” Emann wrote, “are unfair to Canada’s many other religious groups and cultures. Funding all religious schools would be a logistical nightmare, and in my view, public services should be affirmatively secular.” She continued, “As should be apparent to anyone who has been following the news for the past year, some Catholic school boards, trustees, teachers and advising clergy have a record of discriminatory, socially regressive efforts to hinder advances made in the interest of student safety and learning. . . . In Ontario there was opposition from Catholic leaders to the much-needed, recently updated sex-education curricula.”
Emann continued: “That deficit-plagued province [Ontario] recently asked voters for ideas online for ways it could save money in its budget. Here’s an idea. According to a 2012 report from the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods, merging Ontario’s Catholic and public schools would save the province more than $1 billion.”
The 2016 poll was conducted by Forum Research. Its president, Lorne Bizinoff, said recently that “If it were ever put to a public referendum, Catholic school funding would lose, fair and square.” Just as, I might add, it has in the United States in twenty-eight state referenda by large margins from coast to coast between 1966 and 2014.
In related news, the Ontario-based Civil Rights in Public Education organization (CRIPEweb.org) reports that the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal will consider a complaint “about the treatment one student [non-Catholic Claudia Sorgini] has received from Roman Catholic school board personnel when she applied for an exemption from religious courses and programs in one of the board’s high schools.” The complaint is based on the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which are supposed to provide protection from religion or creed-based pressure.