Educating Governor Kasich

“If I were, not president, but if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges, where they sit together and worry about, ‘Woe is us.’”

Ah, Governor Kasich. There you are.

After watching the first Republican presidential debate, I had briefly wondered whether the John Kasich I knew had taken flight. Amid such candidates as Donald Drumpf and Ted Cruz, you came across as sane, articulate, measured and humane. The man who delivered a thoughtful answer about gay marriage was a person my family, Ohio citizens for 15 years, had rarely glimpsed before.

Now, you’re back in full, bullish form, and the earth is continuing its steady orbit.

Gov. Kasich, I am not sure which teachers made you hate their entire profession. Perhaps a tenth grade algebra teacher made math that much more difficult for you; maybe an English teacher gave you B’s despite your fluency in the language. You may just apply your loathing of unions to every possible group, and teachers, who tend to be union-supporting Democrats, would be among those who irk you the most.

But Gov. Kasich, teachers are not your enemy. The organizations that fight for their fair pay and benefits are not your foes. Teachers would love to work with a government that respects their jobs and livelihoods, their importance in children’s lives and the extraordinary effort they put into improving their work.

Teachers are not, and do not want to be, your enemy. However, increasingly, you are becoming theirs.

I write this as a former Ohio public school student and a reporter for that school’s newspaper. I covered Common Core and the PARCC exams and how both affected teachers and students. I observed firsthand how you, as governor, have attacked public education as if it were a witch in 1692 Salem.

My first introduction to your destructive policies was Ohio Senate Bill 5, Issue 2 of 2011. A freshman at the time, I noticed the “Vote NO on SB5” bumper stickers in the parking lot, the T-shirts teachers wore with the same declaration. The measure, known formally as the Ohio Collective Bargaining Limit Repeal, would have restricted collective bargaining for Ohio’s public employees — not just public school teachers, but firefighters and police officers as well. Had Senate Bill 5 passed, Ohio’s 400,000 public workers could not have collectively bargained for healthcare and pensions anymore; would not have been allowed to strike; and would have had to pay more for pensions and health insurance.

On November 8, 2011, Ohio made its opinion of Senate Bill 5 loud and clear. Nearly 62 percent of voters opposed the bill. A majority of voters supported SB 5 in only five of Ohio’s 88 counties. We avoided your union-axing measures in 2011 not barely, but by a landslide. Senate Bill 5 showed how out of touch you are with public education in Ohio. I wish it was an isolated incident; however, your education philosophies and policies overall have exhibited disregard and disdain for public schools throughout your tenure.

Although 90 percent of Ohio’s students attend traditional public schools, you have cut those schools’ funding by half a billion dollars. At the same time, you have become a vocal, unapologetic advocate for charter schools despite their generally poorer ratings, increasing their funding by at least 27 percent as of July 2015. According to the advocacy group Innovation Ohio, charter schools now receive more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools, despite the low percentage of Ohio children attending them. Your funding cuts have forced local governments to raise millions of dollars for their schools through high levies, despite your general opposition to raising taxes. My hometown, Shaker Heights, passed a 6.9 mill levy in May 2014 — which our teachers’ union considered “conservative” given how much money our schools need. We pay the highest taxes in the state of Ohio because we care so deeply for our public schools — because we must offset your detrimental budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the charter schools you champion — which enroll only seven percent of Ohio’s public school students — do rank first in one category: public sectors misspending tax dollars. According to a recent article in the Akron Beacon Journal, which reviewed 4,263 audits released in 2014 by the state, Ohio’s charter schools seemed to misspend public money “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency,” totaling $27.3 million improperly spent since 2001.

That monetary misuse has done nothing to help students. Rather, charter schools have earned state ratings so bad that David Hansen, the Ohio Education Department official responsible for school choice and charter schools, had to tamper with them to save the schools from embarrassment. He resigned in July after admitting he omitted ‘F’ grades from online and dropout recovery schools’ state evaluations. According to Steve Dyer, a former Ohio state representative and current education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, the schools Hansen helped are those “run by the state’s largest political donors.” Clearly, your administration cares more about receiving money than giving it. Under your watch, Hansen prioritized partisan donations over holding schools accountable “for failing to teach kids enough material during the school year” — the designation an ‘F’ evaluation gives.

And besides accepting Hansen’s resignation, you have done nothing to fix that issue. Your promise in December 2014 to overhaul the charter sector and require more oversight has produced nothing — even though Hansen is only part of the problem, and even though the Akron Beacon Journal said charter schools’ misspending could exceed the numbers they found.

As governor of Ohio, you have also at least doubled the number of school vouchers available to students. You began that increase to help poor children escape terrible public schools; however, middle class children from good school districts can now receive vouchers — most of which cover religious schools — as well. The amount of public funds Ohio spends on school vouchers has skyrocketed from $99 million in 2010, the year before you became governor, to more than $200 million in the last school year. As Innovation Ohio noted, because voucher money comes from the funding public schools would otherwise receive, that ginormous jump has come from taxpayers — forced to subsidize religious and private schools instead of the public schools their children attend.

Moreover, you have openly opposed the fact that voters elect some members of the state’s Board of Education — in no small part, I’m sure, because at the beginning of August seven elected board members called for an independent investigation into Hansen’s tampering. Following that request, from six Democrats and only one Republican, you called the board “extremely partisan.”

However, William L. Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding and a former assistant state superintendent, told the Columbus Dispatch that an elected board removes politics from the group.

“The reason the people created the state board was to be a buffer between the superintendent and the governor’s office,” Phillis said. He brought up the issue of the state superintendent of public instruction, currently Richard Ross, whom the board — rather than the governor — hires and fires. “Let’s face it, to whom does Dick Ross report? Does he report to the governor or to an independent state board?”

After recent events, that answer isn’t clear. Without informing or involving the Ohio Board of Education, Ross helped lawmakers rewrite Ohio’s law on academic distress commissions and put it into House Bill 70, an education bill introduced to and passed by both Houses of the legislature in just one day. Although no opposition had time to state their cases — or even knew about the bill — you, Gov. Kasich, signed HB 70 into law July 16.

The new provisions are nearly despotic. HB 70 abolishes local control of schools after three years of failing grades, instead giving one state-appointed person the power to enact policies on pay, employment and charter schools — cutting local school boards, administrations and unions out of the equation. The first, and implicit, target of HB 70 is the Youngstown City School District, which the board had planned to aid through the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission.

As the Plain Dealer pointed out, HB 70 reveals the warped attitude towards public schools and school reform Republicans in Ohio’s statehouse hold.

“School reform is difficult. It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or the Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it.”

You have not spoken out against Ross’ deceit, Gov. Kasich. Rather, by signing HB 70 into law despite its murky origins, you seem to support it.

So, too, do you support the Common Core State Standards. Admittedly, Common Core is not as diabolical as HB 70 — compared to your Republican peers, you seem moderate because you support it. In truth, however, your staunch advocacy of Common Core provides yet another example of your folly regarding education. I detailed my thorough opposition to the Common Core in a column for my school newspaper in 2014; I won’t reiterate all those points again.

I’ll remind you of a few, though. First off, there are not just categories, but also subcategories and sub-subcategories of standards for English Language Arts, not to mention the 10 standards each that schools should meet for “History/Social Studies,” “Science & Technical Subjects” and “Writing.” Those 30 standards must be achieved in English classes, because clearly, English teachers don’t have enough to do already. The math standards, which extend to sub-sub-categories as well, are even ampler. We must hold high standards for our teachers and students; however, Common Core goes too far. By imposing such a ridiculous number of new tasks and requirements upon schools, the standards render learning a check-list. Have I learned to “analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work?” Check! Am I competent in my ability to “interpret expressions that represent a quantity in terms of its context?” Whoops, forgot that one, gotta go back to aisle six!

Common Core’s reading requirements frustrate me in particular. According to the standards, half of all elementary schools’ reading must be nonfiction; by 12th grade, that number must rise to 70 percent. The requirement for elementary schools threatens to end students’ love of reading before it begins. From what I have observed, nonfiction does not grasp children’s attention: it does not transport children to another world on a magic carpet or a spaceship. Fiction does that.  Children learn to love reading through tales of magic and mystery, mortal and immortal alike, from the sagas of feeble Earthlings to those of alien superheroes. Nonfiction is important as well, to be sure, but I believe young students must read it in moderation — less than 50 percent.

As for high schoolers, the Common Core suggests spreading the burden of reading 70 percent nonfiction to math and science classes as well as English and history. That idea shows how out-of-touch Common Core is with reality. The likelihood of math and science classes sacrificing their regular curricula — which are already being complicated by the Common Core’s standards — to read such suggested documents as Euclid’s “Elements” or the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” is slim at best.

Perhaps most concerning about the Common Core State Standards is that they have not been tested. Forty-three states, the District of Columbia and four territories have overhauled their public education systems despite that disturbing fact. Although the Common Core State Standards have found bipartisan support, their effectiveness has only been hypothesized.

Surely, Gov. Kasich, you would decry any doctor who performed a heart surgery with an untested method. That new method could work, sure, but it could also kill the patient. The same is true for the Common Core and Ohio’s public education system. How dare you practice an untested surgery. How dare you act so foolish — so irresponsible.

I give you credit for firing Pearson, showing that you listened to the tens of thousands of Ohioans bemoaning the complicated, ineffective PARCC exams. Thank you. However, our problems will not end until you stop using the Common Core altogether. The new AIR exams will still pull from Common Core questions, just as the PARCC tests did. You saw how well that worked.

Even with PARCC’s conclusion, the state still administers troublesome, harmful tests. The Student Learning Objective exams, unaffectionately known as SLOs, are administered at the beginning and end of each school year at every public school in Ohio, as in other states nationwide. SLOs are part of the value-added system of student growth measurement. The SLO students take in a given class at the beginning and end of each year is the same — same topic, same length, same questions. However, logically, they should perform better on the end-of-year SLO than on the first one because by April, they have learned their class’ material. The amount a student’s score has progressed on the SLO is known as their “value added.”

The value-added metric is flawed, ignoring both students’ and teachers’ realities. Smart students may not test well, making their value-added scores false reflections of what they have learned. Furthermore, students start out at different levels in any given class, and some may start out with significant knowledge of a class’ material. I have some friends who scored A’s on their start-of-year SLOs. As a result, even though they scored higher on their SLOs in April than they did in September, their scores only increased by a few percentage points. Their teachers had taught them all the material, but their SLO scores showed very little value added. On the other hand, some students may start out knowing none of the course material, getting zero questions right on the September SLO. They may get only 50 percent of the answers correct in April, showing they still lack extensive knowledge in that subject, but their value-added scores look impressive.

In addition, different value-added scores may show different levels of progress for different students. For instance, one student’s SLO score jumping 25 percent by the end of the year would look worse than his peer’s score, which rose by 40 percent. However, if the first student’s previous SLO scores showed only 15 percent “value-added,” and the second student always learns about 40 percent of the material, the first student actually made more progress in the classroom. His SLO tests, however, do not give credit to his hard work.

Moreover, the SLOs’ timing causes problems. Most school years do not end until June; however, the SLOs — testing end-of-year knowledge — are administered in April. By their very design, they cannot be an accurate measurement of all students have learned. Administering the SLOs also detracts teaching time, because taking two SLO tests requires two class periods. With public schools in Ohio already losing dozens of teaching hours because of other state tests, not to mention the snow and cold days that tend to plague us, those two SLO days become significant.

Students do not even receive grades for taking SLOs. Instead, their value-added scores — a flawed metric that says little about student progress, and which is even under trial in New York right now — determine 50 percent of their teachers’ state evaluations. Understandably, that encourages teachers to tell students to fail their first SLO so that their value-added progress come April looks more impressive, no matter how inaccurate those scores become. To the faculty’s credit at my alma mater, Shaker Heights High School, none of my teachers ever encouraged their classes to do that. However, if they had, I would not blame them.

You seem to blame them, though. You seem to put teachers at fault for Ohio’s achievement gap — which, according to a new White House report, is bigger than the national average. You seem to hold teachers responsible for Ohio having the ninth-largest reading gap between its highest- and lowest-performing schools, the fourth-largest gap in high school graduation rates and the second-largest gap in math scores in the country.

I have news for you, Gov. Kasich: teachers may be superheroes, but rarely can they work miracles. When children come from impoverished homes — with parents who may not be around often, let alone available to help with schoolwork, and siblings to care for and a job to work for their family’s sake — good teachers can help, but only so much. When children have real-world problems and responsibilities, it’s hard for them to focus on school. Achievement gaps stem from the home, not the classroom, and you would do well to understand that.

At a Koch-organized conference in 2014, you said that at the Pearly Gates, you think God will ask you what you did for the poor. That’s why you expanded Medicaid in Ohio, despite most Republicans’ opposition. You can still do more for the poor, and education is the most necessary place to start.

However, you have yet to do that. Instead, you advocate standards and tests that restrict teacher autonomy and capabilities. You enact punitive, inaccurate evaluation systems that threaten teacher employment — and you wonder what teachers are complaining about.

At an education summit in New Hampshire August 19, you said teachers don’t understand state evaluation systems and exams.

“No, we’re not out to take their job,” you said. “If you need help, we’ll help you. If you’re a terrible teacher, then you should be doing something else because you’re going to find more satisfaction doing something else that you’re good at.”

“I’ll tell you what the unions do, unfortunately too much of the time. There’s a constant negative comment, ‘They’re going to take your benefits, they’re going to take your pay.’ ”

Clearly, the solution to that concern is not meeting with union leaders to hear their complaints or negotiate compromises. The solution is for you to become “king in America,” to shut down teachers’ lounges so they can’t express their grievances towards you. Your ignorant comment from August 19 suggest that teachers don’t even deserve free speech — in direct violation of the Constitution you claim to love.

Because America remains a democracy, you will not become our king. I pray to the high heavens you won’t become our president either. I have learned in the public schools you are defunding and degrading. I have spoken with the teachers you dismiss and disrespect. Until two months ago, I was one of the more than 1,740,000 public school students you have let down, time and time again, as our governor.

God may ask you about more than the poor at His Pearly Gates. If he asks you about education or children, you won’t have much to say for yourself.

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The Danger of Donald Trump

Donald Drumpf — that wrinkled scion of wealth, secondhand beneficiary of the American Dream, overgrown frat boy topped with a thin mop of bleached tennis ball fuzz — may be the most dangerous man in America.

Not because he could become our next president: he won’t. His current high polling numbers are misleading, generated by name recognition as high as the Drumpf Tower and disgusted, indignant, constant media coverage. Drumpf enjoys a 57 percent unfavorable rating, according to a July Gallup poll, while only three percent of respondents had never heard of him. That unfavorable rating far exceeds his peers’ in the Republican field, including his two closest competitors for the nomination, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight calculated Drumpf’s odds of attaining the Republican nomination at about two percent, comparing him with such previous early striders as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. All of those candidates enjoyed at least a month of widespread support; none of them ever ran in the general election for President of the United States.

Rather, Donald Drumpf has become important and dangerous in American politics because of his effect on the other candidates. Due to his alarming, if ultimately inconsequential, success early in the Republican primary, his competition is following him farther to the right.

Had the Republican Party begun at a more centrist foundation, a shift to the right might not be so threatening. However, today’s Republican Party had become more extreme even before the 2016 race. Republicans nationwide aim to restrict the right to vote; the Tea Party enjoys a strong and growing voting presence; GOP politicians use strict Biblical interpretations to justify legal discrimination, such as the former ban on same-sex marriages, despite the supposed separation of church and state.

Donald Drumpf is in equal parts a manifestation, an exploiter and a missionary of that extremism. He has adapted the radical elements of the Republican party’s platform to suit his own needs and fit his warped belief system. Nowhere has his toxic, egotistic disrespect of others been more apparent than in his treatment of immigrants. He received backlash from most corners of the country for his comments on Mexican immigrants in his unscripted June 16 presidential candidacy announcement. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best,” he said during the announcement. “They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

At the time, Drumpf’s opponents spoke out against his remarks — Marco Rubio called Drumpf’s comments “offensive, inaccurate and divisive,” for one — and businesses such as NBC and Univision severed ties with him. However, since June, Drumpf has expanded his ideas about immigration — and throughout the Republican presidential field, those ideas have gained more traction.

In his immigration policy proposal, Drumpf championed building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, severely limiting legal immigration and eliminating illegal immigration and illegal immigrants entirely. His specific ideas include deporting all illegal immigrants who have a criminal record; banning illegal immigrants from accessing welfare; and ending birthright citizenship.

Some of Drumpf’s ideas actually have place in current law, such as targeting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes and forbidding illegal immigrants’ use of American welfare. As such, these elements of his immigration proposal are dramatic promises that neither he nor anyone else knows how to keep. However, one of his ideas is not just more extreme than the rest, but also un-American: the end of birthright citizenship.

As the Fourteenth Amendment declares, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.” America has followed this policy of birthright citizenship since 1868. Some scholars — by far a minority — interpret part of the amendment, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” to not require birthright citizenship. Edward J. Erler, in an August 9 article for the National Review, argues that like Native Americans, illegal immigrants are subject to the jurisdiction of another government — for instance, the Cherokee Nation or Mexico. However, if taken to its logical conclusion, that argument would mean the United States cannot convict or deport those illegal immigrants. Moreover, in considering the Fourteenth Amendment’s intent, we must consider how our predecessors understood it. For nearly 150 years, the American government has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to support birthright citizenship, and have acted accordingly. If consistency and precedent play roles in our legal system, the United States Constitution makes America follow birthright citizenship.

We should pride ourselves on that. Today, there are few things on which America can claim superiority. The United States ranked 14th out of 40 countries in a 2015 Pearson education ranking; 19th in national satisfaction, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s 2015 study; 44th in health care efficiency, out of 51 countries in a 2014 Bloomberg ranking; 101st out of 162 countries in the 2014 Global Peace Index; and 23rd for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2013. Only two rankings give the United States definitive victories: those of GDP and countries’ prisoners. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, as of January 31, 2015, America held 2,228,424 prisoners. The next-closest, China, has more than 500,000 fewer prisoners.

Few existing indicators of social welfare or human rights paint the United States as a world leader. As Will McAvoy ranted in the pilot of The Newsroom, America is not the greatest country in the world. Perhaps it was once, but we have lost that distinction. However, one area in which we have surpassed our worldwide peers has been basing citizenship on birth rather than blood.

In 2012, the Law Library of Congress conducted a study that found France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom do not follow birthright citizenship. Rather, to different degrees, they practice “blood citizenship.” With a few exceptions, only children born to parents from their respective nations — for instance, Frenchmen in France, or Italians in Italy — automatically attain citizenship in that country. Otherwise, children have the citizenship of their parents’ birth country, even if they have never set foot on that land and never will.

Adolf Hitler used a particularly radical interpretation of blood citizenship as justification to commit genocide of Jews, Roma and blacks across Europe, as well as to conquer European nations with German-speaking or German-descended citizens. No interpretations of that concept are so extreme or deadly today, yet they still divide nations and hurt certain populations.

In France, children with unknown parents born on French territory automatically become French citizens; however, if one of their parents is found and is not French, those children lose their French citizenship. Tensions between immigrants and Frenchmen in suburbs of big cities such as Paris and Lyon — which often escalate to violence — have existed for decades. They are taken as a natural, if unfortunate part of life in France — as French as the Eiffel Tower, or even a tarte tatin. In recent decades, anti-immigrant attitudes in France have become more intense, as epitomized by the growing success of the National Front party. The right-wing National Front, which has evolved from a blatantly racist, anti-Semitic organization into a tamer nationalist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic one made it to the final round of presidential elections in 2002. Brandishing the slogan “The French Come First,” in May 2014, the party earned 25 percent of the vote in the European Union parliament elections, leading all other parties.

Since the Federal Republic of Germany’s foundation after World War Two, Germany has moved away from strict blood citizenship. Amendments to the nation’s nationality law made since 1949 have made it steadily broader, weakening its emphasis on parents’ nationality over time. According to the most recent nationality law, passed in 1999, children born from January 1, 2000 onwards to non-German parents acquire German citizenship at birth only if at least one parent has a permanent residence permit and has lived in Germany for at least eight years. Those children must them affirm their German citizenship by age 23 — which involves renouncing all other foreign citizenships, besides those that cannot be lost and those from the European Union — or their citizenship will expire. Experts attribute the difference between citizenship as a main reason Germans of Turkish descent — the largest minority in Germany — face so much strife as a population. Studies show they have integrated poorly into German society, contributing to the 30 percent unemployment rate they suffered as of 2013. In a 2006 ALLBUS poll, 24 percent of respondents stated they would be upset if a Turk married one of their family members; only 4 percent stated the same for an Italian. According to a 2008 Allensbach survey, 76 percent of respondents believed Turkish immigrants “have a totally different culture,” while 73 percent said they “think totally differently than we do about a lot of things.”

Germany’s current nationality law must still cross bridges before it becomes birthright citizenship. However, Germany has spent more than 60 years approaching the policy America models — while Donald Drumpf wants to change that law, taking leaps backward in time. Although not used as radically as Hitler once wielded it, blood citizenship still contributes to hostile attitudes towards immigrants, legal and otherwise, as well as promoting nationalism that may exclude certain races and ethnicities. The United States is not devoid of those issues — some of Donald Drumpf’s supporters are genuine, after all, and although we have an African-American president, discrimination and prejudice towards black Americans and other minorities still roil our country. Yet for more than a century, the United States has enjoyed its reputation as the melting pot of the world. Despite all our problems, we have entertained fewer issues with immigrants than our Western peers because we offer such an open path to American life. We are a nation founded by immigrants, built on immigrants’ backs, watered by immigrants’ sweat. The first colonists in America were illegal immigrants: we did not have Native Americans’ permission to steal and pillage their land and resources. We came here in droves anyway. The America we know is comprised almost entirely of illegal immigrants, if we discount birthright citizenship. In a way, the controversy over illegal immigrants now serves as our comeuppance.

Another reason to maintain birthright citizenship reveals inconsistencies within the beliefs of Republicans who favor changing America’s citizenship laws. On a moral level, we should not punish children for the faults of their parents. Infants cannot help where they are born: they communicate with their parents only through kicks, gurgles and cries. Adults may come to America illegally, but the children born to them in America do not. The only place newborns leave is their womb.

By that logic, any person who opposes abortion should support birthright citizenship. Candidates such as Scott Walker, who declared that he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest — reasoning that children should not be punished for how their lives began — should decry Drumpf’s proposal to remove present and future Americans’ citizenship. Yet Walker has echoed Donald Drumpf’s call to end birthright citizenship, and fellow Republican candidates Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham have made statements in agreement as well. John Kasich has not supported that proposal during his presidential campaign so far, but he reiterated his longtime opposition to birthright citizenship during his run for Ohio’s governorship in 2010.

Donald Drumpf may have only a two percent chance of becoming the Republicans’ presidential nominee, and has an even slimmer chance of ever sitting in the Oval Office. However, his misleading surge in the polls thus far has forced his peers to adopt his radicalism. This despite clear evidence that doing so will harm the Republican party: extreme anti-immigrant policies could turn the Latino vote to the Democrats, a key reason Mitt Romney lost in 2012.

More importantly, for several of America’s most prominent politicians to adopt such hard-line, un-American policies speaks poorly of America’s future. If we revoke birthright citizenship, we will lose a quality that the United States should cherish. If we cast millions of Americans out of our ranks, we will prove ourselves as foolish as Donald Drumpf’s toupée. The American Dream rests on the concept that determination, hard work, pluck and loyalty make an American — not, despite what Drumpf seems to think, having the right parents. Drumpf takes for granted the security and wealth his parents gave him — but lucky for us, not every American is Donald Drumpf. In our constitutional acceptance of foreign cultures and peoples, we find one good reason to call America the greatest country in the world.

Death to the Jews: Leo Frank, Alfred Dreyfus and the Crime of Judaism

     The summer before eleventh grade, I attended Hathaway Brown Theatre Institute, a camp that trained me to perform in one of its two musicals that season. One of our assignments was to pick a new song, practice it with a voice teacher and prepare it as an audition piece. On a staff member’s suggestion, I chose “You Don’t Know This Man” from Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, a 1998 musical about the trial, conviction and lynching of Leo Frank — a man innocent of all deeds except being Jewish.
     Frank, a pencil factory superintendent in Marietta, GA, was accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in April 1913. As crowds outside the courthouse screamed, “Hang the Jew!” on August 25, Frank was convicted based on factory janitor Jim Conley’s testimony. That Conley’s story changed between affidavits seemed not to bother the jury, nor did the fact he admitted fabricating parts of his tale. Although Conley was an African-American in the Jim Crow South, the jury considered him more truthful than Frank, a Jew raised and educated in the North. Appeals from Frank’s legal team failed, although Georgia’s governor commuted his original sentence — death by hanging — to life imprisonment.
     However, the commutation did not save Leo Frank. On August 16, 1915, a group of 28 men — including former Georgia governor Joseph Mackey Brown, former Marietta mayor Eugene Herbert Clay and E. P. Dobbs, the mayor of Marietta at the time, as well as lawyers, bankers and county sheriffs — abducted Frank from a prison hospital. The next day — exactly 100 years ago — they lynched him. When townspeople discovered Frank’s swinging corpse, they took proud pictures underneath it: a city united, celebrating that they had finally hung the Jew.
     Today, historians agree that Conley killed Phagan to steal the pay in her pocket. Conley framed Leo Frank, an innocent man condemned less for his alleged crime than for being a Jew in an anti-Semitic society.
     Frank’s sordid tale struck a particular chord with me not just because I am Jewish, but also because of my mother. She was born and grew up as a Jew in the South. Had my mother been born just a few decades earlier, she, too, could have been framed for murder because of her religion. She, too, may have hung from a tree, a rope bruising her breathless neck.
     As I sang the song from Parade at camp, I thought of another anti-Semitic attack. In September 1894, the French army obtained a letter known as the bordereau, written to the German military attaché in Paris, offering French military secrets. Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew with knowledge of the letter’s promised information, became an instant suspect. The army prosecuted Dreyfus without conclusive evidence as to his guilt. A handwriting expert from the Bank of France said Dreyfus’ penmanship did not match that in the bordereau, so General Mercier hired an anti-Semitic graphologist to disagree. Commandants Henry and du Paty forged a “Secret File” of documents incriminating Dreyfus under military orders. On December 22, the First Council of War unanimously declared Dreyfus guilty. Most Frenchmen believed a Jew could commit treason without question, despite his spick-and-span military career and spotless criminal record. Journalists from the popular, anti-Semitic La Libre Parole, who had felt consoled upon Dreyfus’ arrest “that it [was] not a true Frenchman who committed such a crime,” rejoiced.
     Dreyfus’ legal battle to prove his innocence continued for more than a decade. In 1896, while investigating one Commandant Esterhazy for another treasonous letter, General Georges Picquart discovered Esterhazy’s handwriting matched that in the bordereau. His superiors forbade him from revealing his discovery; when Picquart disobeyed them, giving his report to a lawyer in 1897, the army discharged him.
     Picquart’s report led to a retrial for Dreyfus and a first trial for Esterhazy. However, on Jan. 10, 1898, Esterhazy was acquitted. The crowd roared its appreciation for the verdict: “Death to the Jews!”
     However, Dreyfus and his supporters maintained his innocence. As anti-Semitic disputes roiled France, the military’s case unraveled. Reporters discovered the forged “Secret File” in August 1898; Commandant Henry committed suicide. The next day, Esterhazy fled France. A year later, Dreyfus returned to France for a retrial but, despite the new evidence in his favor, met conviction again. However, President Loubet issued Dreyfus a pardon in September 1899, which he accepted. Dreyfus remained guilty in the eyes of the law until 1906, when the Cour de Cassation gave him a fourth trial. Finally, they declared his innocence.
     Even after the 1906 ruling, however, anti-Dreyfusards and anti-Semites swore by Dreyfus’ guilt. Their sentiments haunted Dreyfus the rest of his life. He could no longer live his former existence as an upright military officer, Jewish but unobservant. Until his death, his faith and its consequences defined him.
     Alfred Dreyfus’ legal battle began 19 years before Leo Frank’s, and he avoided Frank’s grisly demise. However, history casts these two men as brothers. Both were upstanding members of their modern societies; both were framed for crimes they did not commit; both were convicted because they observed Judaism; both have been exonerated by hindsight, the great redeemer. Dreyfus and Frank serve as casualties of anti-Semitism in the Western world, and as warnings of the strife and injustice prejudice can wring.
     A common joke among Jews aims to describe, in one sentence, all our holidays: “They tried to kill us; they didn’t; let’s eat!” Although I laugh whenever someone feeds me that line, I — like all Jews, or at least most — understand the truth at its core. We are among the most persecuted groups in world history. In the Exodus, the Diaspora, the Holocaust, we have faced extinction as a people. Yet we have faced equal threats as individuals throughout history as well.
     We don’t know the name of every Jew targeted for his religion. We don’t know their faces, their families or their fates. However, we do know Alfred Dreyfus and Leo Frank. We know who they were; we know what befell them. We read their names in history books and hear their stories in musicals. We think of their faces when we hear of persecution and bemoan the years they lost because of it.
     Today, the centenary anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank, remember the factory leader whose innocence could not save him. Remember Alfred Dreyfus, the soldier betrayed by the army he served. And with them, remember every other victim of religious persecution — millions of unknown people killed before their time, millions of unknown people who deal with slurs and violence everyday. We do not know all their names, but we can honor their lives. If we remember and eradicate the prejudice that plagued them, they have not died in vain.
     If observing Judaism is a crime, I am guilty. Luckily, in my life, it is not. We must make that the standard across the world, for all religions. The fact we have not achieved that yet shows what we still must learn from Leo Frank. Until then, his body’s shadow still hangs on a tree in Georgia: limbs tied together, his white nightshirt in tatters, unseeing eyes facing the sky.

In Face of Extinction, a Plea: Don’t Forget the Elephants

As I mentioned in my first, introductory post on this blog, I wrote a column on Facebook on World Elephant Day — August 12 — about my favorite animal, elephants, and the plights leading them towards extinction. Since my desire to share that post with a wider audience spurred me to start this blog, I thought I’d make it my first column here, with a few edits befitting its new publishing date.

Enjoy, and if you learned something, please share.

When I was one year old, my parents played the movie “Dumbo” for me. “Dumbo,” one of Walt Disney’s first creations, ranks among the few perfect films — especially for young children — and stars a darling, big-eared baby elephant. Depicting an outcast’s journey to gain confidence and free his mother, “Dumbo” became my favorite movie, and elephants my favorite animal as a result.

As I grew older, I continued to love “Dumbo,” but I also learned more about elephants. I began loving them not because of how cute they look animated, but because of their character as animals.

Elephants are some of the world’s most intelligent, emotional creatures. When a herd passes a deceased elephant’s bones, they stop to mourn their departed sister or brother. When an elephant calf falls, not just his mother but his aunts and cousins come to help him up, too. When an elephant dies, her fellow herd members — her family — sit by her corpse, swatting away vultures to protect the body, taking time to grieve until the herd must keep moving to survive. As keystone species, elephants’ mere existence contributes to Africa and Asia’s wide varieties of flora and fauna. Elephants walk over fences to minimize destruction, love to swim and roll in the mud, communicate across miles through vibrations in the ground, cry when they are sad, form long-lasting friendships and familial bonds, actively love one another —

Elephants are going extinct.

Poaching elephants for their ivory tusks has reached epic proportions. From 2011 to 2014, poachers slaughtered 100,000 African elephants. Roughly one out of every 12 African elephants was killed in 2011 alone. In central Africa, the hardest-hit region, the African elephant population has declined 64 percent in the past decade; in Tanzania, the population has fallen by 60 percent in just the past five years. Due to poaching and habitat loss, the total population of African elephants has decreased from 1.3 million in 1979 to just 500,000 by most recent estimates.

Asian elephants, despite having shorter tusks and thus less ivory, are also threatened by poaching. That, along with habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict, has affected Asian elephant populations for the worse. At the start of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants lived in the wild. Now, less than half that population exists: there are only 40,000 Asian elephants left, and they are restricted to just 15 percent of their original range.

The habitat loss, the murder — their effects are grand and horrible. Experts and conservationists agree that unless we enact major change in both areas — especially poaching — wild elephants could be extinct within decades. Some estimates hover around 2050; others, as early as 2020 — just five years from now.

What can we do to save these species?

Enacting the ivory regulations President Obama proposed a few weeks ago in Kenya would be a start. The United States is the second-largest ivory market in the world — meaning that we are a main cause of elephants’ barbaric, needless slaughter. The regulations President Obama outlined would shrink our ivory market and the parameters of trade allowed. However, because it still allows some ivory sale — however little — it still holds loopholes, which are fatal for elephants. These new regulations mark progress, but they may not be enough. I would advocate outlawing America’s ivory market altogether and banning all parts of our ivory trade: no loopholes, no exceptions.

We also have to pressure China — the world’s largest ivory market — to enact regulations of their own. Economic sanctions would force Chinese politicians to create and enforce policies limiting ivory’s import and sale. Moreover, we should help create a public awareness campaign informing the Chinese that ivory does not, in fact, have medicinal powers. Much of China’s ivory trade stems from that incorrect, traditional belief, and it is directly causing elephants’ mass murder.

The U.S. and other first-world countries should also help fund protections for elephants, such as ranger programs, natural reserves and stronger anti-poaching prosecution in Africa and Asia. These defenses allow elephants to live in their normal habitats while protecting them from poachers. Rangers also need access to weapons equivocal to poachers’ — it’s hard to fight an AK-47 with a spear or even a rifle. In addition, Western countries should pressure African and Asian governments to care for their elephant populations in humane, practical ways. Kidnapping baby elephants from their mothers to sell to China, as Zimbabwe has done, does not count. Economically developed nations should form a coalition, dedicating money and other resources to preventing elephants’ and other animals’ extinction.

More than anything, we — the U.S., China, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, every country in the world, politicians and civilians alike — have to start caring. We have let poachers monopolize elephant populations for their destructive, immoral, money-grabbing means for too long. Soon, unless we act, elephants will die out. Our children or grandchildren will only know them from photographs, faded in books or preserved with unnatural virtual light. We cannot let elephants — loving, thoughtful, hard-working, protective, tenacious, beloved elephants — disappear. Doing so will destroy Africa and Asia’s wild habitats; what’s more, it will mark the departure of human conscience. If we choose apathy and laziness over protecting and restoring elephant populations, we have sunk too low to ever rise again.

I discovered my favorite animal in a movie 17 years ago, and since then, elephants — through books, films, photos and adorable online videos — have given me joy. Now, I aim to return that favor by giving elephants life. We must use today and every day to raise awareness of elephants’ plight and work together to save them. That task is neither quick nor easy, but with patience, vigilance and hard work, we can do it.

I want to see elephants in their natural habitat one day. I want my children and grandchildren to have that privilege as well. For future generations and the earth’s wellness, we must save the elephants.

Starting a Softly-Stomped Trek

Over this past summer, I encountered a dilemma: I had opinions to write, and no place to write them.

For the past three years, that hasn’t been an issue. I worked as a reporter and editor for my school newspaper, The Shakerite, which let me write and publish as many columns as I pleased. Whenever I held a strong opinion, I could express my thoughts to our small but growing audience. Doing so gave me a release of sorts. Even if no one read my column, I had made my perspective known. I found comfort in that sensation — that I had contemplated an issue enough to take a stance on it, and that someone, someday, could learn from the view I had articulated.

That’s not to say I wrote columns all the time, or even often. While working for The Shakerite, the number of opinions I held inevitably exceeded the number of columns I wrote. I had too many other duties: assembling print issues, editing other reporters’ stories, discussing artwork and layouts, writing my own news articles and, y’know, doing my actual schoolwork every so often. Still, when I graduated in June and my outlet to opine vanished, I felt The Shakerite’s absence. Too many times this summer, I’ve cultivated views I wanted to share. Not wanting the commitment a blog might force me to have, I shared my opinions in long rants to my parents instead. It wasn’t as satisfying, and I think they got annoyed after awhile.

I finally decided to start a blog a few days ago. On August 12, World Elephant Day, I posted a column on Facebook explaining my infinite love for elephants, the fatal threats those pachyderms face and how humans can prevent elephants’ extinction. Thirty-nine people ‘liked’ that post — which, I hope, means 39 people read it. That’s a decent readership for a Facebook post as absurdly long as mine was, but I realized I remained unsatisfied. I care deeply about elephants and their survival, and I wanted more than 39 people to learn from my column. I wanted dozens of people, hundreds, even thousands to read my words and adopt parts of my opinions as their own. Only then would my column make a significant difference.

I doubt this blog will attain thousands of readers, but here we are anyway — me writing my first blog post, and you reading it. Thanks for joining me. I can’t promise frequent updates, but I do pledge to make each post worthwhile. Enjoy reading about the figurative elephants in my room — the opinions I can’t knock out of my head, except by putting pen to paper. Or, in this case, fingers to keyboard.