Uncommon Sense

June 5, 2021

Meditation: It’s a Business Opportunity, I Guess

There seems to be an entire cottage industry devoted to teaching one how to meditate. Once again, something that is simple and straightforward needs teachers, books, workbooks, seminars, retreats, paraphernalia, and on and on, all quite reasonably priced, of course (Not!).

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes everyday — unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
Sukhraj Dhillon

Allow me to explain meditation and how to do it, where to do it, etc.

Have you ever been alone with your thoughts? Sitting on a park bench or waiting for a bus, or peeling potatoes while making dinner? Just you and all of the things running through your head.

Meditation is being alone without your thoughts.

You do not need to be sitting, standing, squatting, or running. You do not need to be in any special place. You do not need a focus for your non-thoughts.

You just need to allow your thoughts to drop away so that you are not thinking things consciously.

That’s it.

No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can meditate and it is quite refreshing.

Oh, there is one technique I employ. Some of my thoughts are quite tenacious and do not just fall away easily. For those I use a shooing motion with my hand, much as if you would shoo away a bothersome fly. That’s it.

All of my mediation secrets in one place, and for zero dollars!


March 31, 2021

Let Them Do It How We Had To

Filed under: Business,Education — Steve Ruis @ 10:32 am
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In Diane Ravitch’s blog she reports that “Over the opposition of Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted 4-3 to allow charter schools to have a share in property taxes and motor vehicle taxes that previously were reserved for public schools.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the settlement could violate state law and have ‘seismic’ implications by redistributing school funding.

“Today’s board action circumvents the will of the people of Oklahoma and the state legislature by unilaterally determining how public education is to be funded,” Hofmeister said in a statement Thursday evening. ‘I fear this action knowingly violated Oklahoma statute and the Oklahoma Constitution.’

“The original promise of charter schools when they started thirty years ago was that they would cost less than public schools because of their lack of bureaucracy. That pledge has long been forgotten as charters fight to have equal funding–or in some states, like Texas–more funding than public schools.

“This decision will mean less money for Oklahoma’s underfunded public schools.

The Charter School Business in this country is so far off base that it is undermining public education as a whole. There is a solution, however.

Whenever school districts wanted more funding in the past, they floated a “bond issue” to pay for it and then the people decided whether or not they wanted to pay for it. Most often, they did not.

In Oklahoma, as elsewhere, public schools are massively underfunded (by their own standards, not mine) and clawing back a large segment of those funds is defensible only if what they are being used for replaces what those funds used to pay for. And, basically, they should do that task better, otherwise why make the change?

Charter schools have proven to be no better than our current public schools and in more than a few cases are much, much worse, even to the point of being total frauds.

So, here is how we fix this mess. In the past public schools made a pitch to the people or the legislators representing them to fund what they do. If a charter operator (more and more these are large organizations, far from Mom and Pop efforts) wants to open a charter school. let them float a special bond issue and see if the public is willing to pay for it. Currently legislators are making this decision and charter operators are allowed to make “campaign donations,” aka bribes, to those legislators (often using funding supplied by the state) whereas the public schools are not. And is it not obvious that those who come bearing checks to our legislators get better treatment than those who do not?

If we have a democracy, let the people decide. A special tax issue for every charter school or group of charter schools can be voted up or down and then you will know whether “the people” actually do or don’t want those schools to be created.

March 25, 2021

The Esteem of Teachers

Filed under: Education,History,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:12 pm
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I have been reading Milton Mayer’s book “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945” and I ran across this:

In the years of the rise the movement little by little brought the communities attitude toward the teacher around from respect and envy to resentment, from trust and fear to suspicion. The development seems to have been inherent; it needed no planning and had none. As the Nazi emphasis on nonintellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, purity, labor, simplicity, “blood,” “folkishness”) seeped through Germany, elevating the self-esteem of the “little man,” the academic profession was pushed from the very center to the periphery of society. Germany was preparing to cut its own head off. By 1933 at least five of my ten friends (and I think six or seven) looked upon “intellectuals” as unreliable, and among these unreliables, upon the academics as the most insidiously situated.” (p. 112)

I am quite aware of Godwin’s law (Invoke the Nazis and you’ve lost the argument.) but I plow on fearlessly. The Nazi’s were a totalitarian authoritarian bunch. And if you are just going to rule by giving orders, you do not want a bunch of credible naysayers arguing the other way. Fascists just don’t like opposition, so they either eliminate it or marginalize it.

Fast forward to today and we see some startling parallels. When I was young, teachers were held in high esteem, but over the past twenty or so years, teachers have been criticized as being pigs at the public trough, earning way too much money. They have been criticized as being the reason for failing schools. They have had collective bargaining rights stripped from them. Their unions have been demonized. Their role in the classroom undermined by “systems” that insist on approved classroom scripts being read instead of anything the teacher might have thought would be helpful. And when testing results of their pupils do not show progress, they are blamed as the sole cause.

I must also point out that during the social unrests of the 1960’s and 1970’s college students and teachers were much to the forefront. The revision of the bankruptcy laws disallowing student loans from being discharged (with no evidence for the claim such loans were being abused) has effectively chained students with a ball of debt they drag around with them through much of their working lives. Such people do not jeopardize their careers by falling behind on their debt payments, so they keep their heads down and just keep doing what they are told.

So, now that teachers and students have been defanged, we see a veritable war on science and the pointy-headed intellectuals behind it. We have become suspicious of experts, you know the people who kind of know what they are talking about. Gosh, would any American political party find this acceptable? Apparently both do to some extent. Joe Biden was a major force behind the student loan bankruptcy legislation. And the Republicans have been full bore on a “Let’s Get Ready for Fascism” campaign.

March 21, 2021

Delayed Miller Time

Filed under: Culture,Education — Steve Ruis @ 9:45 am

When does the weekend begin? Since I am now retired, aka work form home, I often miss weekends entirely in that one day is pretty much like another. I don’t have to commute to work, show up at an office, etc. so I work a little every day.

But if you do work for a living, when does your weekend begin?

I threw this question at the college freshmen and sophomores I taught many times over during my teaching tenure. Many college students have very few classes on Fridays and often they are in the morning, so their school week ends on Friday morning, noon at the latest. So, officially “Miller Time” begins at noon or even earlier on Friday. (If you do not remember “Miller Time” it was an advertising ploy to stake a claim on people’s attention when they got off of work. You know, “stop on the way home and have a Miller beer to make your day that much better,” kind of messaging.

But if you examine what these young people did with their time on Friday afternoon, it was more like Watching Reruns on Cable TV Time or Binge Watching Old TV Shows Time (“Whoa, Dude, have you ever seen Hogan’s Heroes?”), or “Diddling Around on the Internet Time” (Like, like, like, like . . . busy day, busy people!).

As a foray into time management, I encouraged my students to use Friday afternoons to create actually free weekends by doing all of their homework needed for Monday then. Basically I was recommending Delayed Gratification Miller Time.

The benefits were, I taught, immense. If you manage to get all of your work done, then “the rest” of your weekend was truly free. Contrast that with having the thought “Oh, I have to write that paper for History or English” and then thinking “I’ve got plenty of time.” You then have this same thought and same response Saturday morning, Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and then Sunday evening you are at “I have to write that damned paper!” and feeling pressure because if you don’t get it done, you are out of time. If you do the paper on Friday afternoon and need more time, you have two days of it, a much less stressful situation. Plus you don’t have to spend the entire weekend nagging yourself about that task.

The basis of this attitude was the rather straightforward question: if you are going to do “x hours” of homework, when is it to your advantage to actually do it? Noting that Friday afternoons often get sucked into a black hole of absolute nothingness, that was the best time to do it.

Now I am a procrastinator, always have been, but sometimes the obvious (such as the advice above) gets heard and followed and, I will attest, it does work even for me, not that I always operated this way.

I remember returning to my office around 3 pm on a Friday afternoon and there was a student sitting at the table outside of my office. When he saw me coming, he got up and moved rapidly my direction, eyes a bit wild: “Mr. Ruis, Mr. Ruis, I took your advice and . . .” I was struggling to remember who this kid was and finally I realized he had been in my Chem 100 class the previous semester. I recalled that he was a good kid, good student, typical of so many. But he was excited, because he was doing his homework when I was in my meeting and had adopted this practice steadfastly. He also was acing his classes and wanted to thank me. So, realizing that he was not another drug crazed youth spouting nonsense and that I had actually helped someone, I went home on a kind of high that day . . . and watched reruns on TV (I don’t really know exactly what I did, but I didn’t do my homework). I learned more time management techniques but in that regard I was a slow learner.

It still is the case in my life that when I do something is almost as important as that I do something. This last summer we published four new books. At this stage of my life when I get up a head of steam, I ride it as long as I can, because my Miller Time can last weeks.

March 15, 2021

Christ Ain’t a Name

Filed under: Culture,Education,History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 10:10 am
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I continue to read works written by Christians in which they refer to “Christ” as if it were someone’s name. It isn’t.

Imagine if one took, say, Mike Trout, who is the centerfielder for the Anaheim Angels professional baseball team, and addressed his as “Mr. Centerfielder.” This is clearly confusing one’s occupation or description for the person’s name, no?

Well, “Christ” means “anointed one” and has implications as well as connotations. To be an “anointed one” one must be anointed, typically with oil, in a religious ceremony. In Judaism, there have been many of these, King David was one, for example. The high priests were typically anointed. The connotation was that an anointed one was chosen as being selected by god to fulfill a certain role. The word Christ is of Greek origin, the Hebrew word for “one anointed with oil” is messiah (actually mashiach—this has various spellings in that it is translated from a language which has a different alphabet).

Therefore Jesus was claimed to be a christ, a messiah and not “the Messiah.” He wasn’t/isn’t The Messiah any more than Mike Trout is The Centerfielder of Major League Baseball. It is also funny that Christians insist on imbuing Jesus with the title of being a Christ. Remember that that office was “being one chosen by God for a particular purpose.” Christians came around to the belief that Jesus was God, so basically their insistence that Jesus was a Christ equates to Jesus being chosen by himself to do something really important. In other words, the office was self-appointed . . . wtf?

The self-appointed Apostle Paul was fond of referring to this character as Christ Jesus, which makes a bit more sense, but maybe because we now tend to put titles out in front, like Doctor Fauci and President Biden.

But this practice would probably just mean that Christians will think that Christ is Jesus’s first name. I fully understand that this may just be a manifestation of Christianity having been dumbed down to be suitable for its audience. (One famous comment by a Texas state legislator, who was arguing against a bilingual education bill in front of him, was that only English should be used in schools because “if it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for him.” Apparently he didn’t realize that his Bible had been translated into a language that didn’t exist in the first century of the Current Era.)

January 15, 2021

Scientific Method Nonsense (Promulgated by Teachers)

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 1:02 pm

I encountered the following question on Quora today: “What is the correct order of steps in the scientific method?”

I Googled the scientific method and got this in the “People Also Ask” box:
What are the 5 parts of the scientific method?
What are the 4 parts of the scientific method?
What are the 6 stages of the scientific method?
What are the 8 steps of the scientific method?
Each of these contain nonsense such as  “The scientist selects what it is that he wishes to observe.” I never knew! All of those years I spent as a scientist and a teacher of science and no one told me this!

There are no such steps and there is no correct order. (Repeat after me: There are. . . .) Rather the process is quite organic.

The “steps” often described were made up by teachers to have something to teach and test. (Ah, my people, my people! I weep for my people. Note In another life I was a professor of chemistry.)

The simplest form of the so-called scientific method is: conjecture and criticism. One makes a conjecture about how nature works and then one criticizes it. Often enough the criticism results in the conjecture being modified which results in the criticism (aka experiments designed to test the conjecture) being modified and on and on.

I have seen many such lists, most of which are quite comical. One started with #1 Collect Facts, followed by #2 Make Hypothesis, etc. My cartoon mind shows a Larsen-esque cartoon with a scientist (in a white lab coat, of course) standing with his hand on a door knob, the door labeled “Lab,” with the thought balloon “Today I am going to collect some facts!” One just doesn’t collect facts randomly, one becomes curious about some particular aspect of nature and learns as much as one can about that phenomenon. I guess that could be construed as “collecting facts” but that verbiage seems strange.

In order to make a good conjecture, one needs to know a great deal about the phenomenon under scrutiny. Then one asks why this, why that? And then moves onto “maybe such and such is happening.” This is the conjecture. Then one goes on to “if that is happening, how could I test that?” This is the criticism. Obviously one needs to have a conjecture before one can criticize it, but as mentioned before, often one affects the other and vice-versa, so their “order” is somewhat vague at best.

The parts of the process that are more important are: being committed to honesty, following the data wherever they lead, sharing one’s data and processes widely through publication, correcting errors, admitting when one was incorrect, and so on. These are more important than any such list of steps made up by some teacher. Apparently these lists are important because school children ask an unending stream of questions about them . . . what a waste of time and effort.

December 11, 2020

It Is As If We Can’t See What Is Right In Front of Our Eyes

The plutocrats running the US have decided that it would be a good thing if much of the school systems in this country were privatized. They claim, without evidence (as they are religious people), that this would make our schools better. The question, of course, is “Will it?”

We don’t have to guess or pray or wonder as the experiment has been done. The primary example is Sweden (or should be). Sweden had a school system that we wished ours was. Here is what happened when Sweden decided to copy the US’s fledgling efforts.

Per Kornhall: The Great Swedish Child Experiment: A Failure

It is clear that the plutocrats who have gotten both the Republicans and Democrats to chase this folly have no idea what the outcome of our experiment will be. They only want a piece of the action which is all of the money spent by our governments in public schools, a rather tidy sum. It is clear that the plutocrats have dominated all of the other areas of our economy in which big bucks are available: the stock markets, resource extractions (oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) and had run out of sources of big pools of money when they spied public education, which had already acquired a big pool of money . . . yum, yum.

So far, our experiment with privately run “charter schools” is that on average they perform no better than our public schools, but which are also rife with racism and . . . corruption. It seems that there is a charter school scandal announced in the news on a daily basis. If these were public schools, such behavior would be a national scandal.

Gosh, why would something so potentially good go so wrong? (Sarcasm alert! Sarcasm alert!) With no qualifications needed to start a school, and no government oversight, and no regulations (those pesky regulations!), those schools should be thriving, right? They are thriving, as pools of corruption. Millions upon millions of dollars have been lost to sketchy real estate deals, flat out theft by charter operators, and graft. But that’s a small price to pay for non-existent performance increases, right? Right?

The plutocrats do not give a rat’s ass about equality, quality schooling, or any of the things Sweden lost in its experiment. What they do care about is their ideology . . . as long as it makes money for them. It is very clear that they do not care about us, or our children, or anything but getting richer. Us becoming disempowered in the process is not a bug, it is a feature. “Us,” in the form of governments, are the authors of regulations confining what the rich can do with their money, so they have no interest in empowering us, quite the contrary.

Please note, if you do not read the post I linked to, when Sweden had its former system, Finland copied it. But when Sweden went “a privatizing,” Finland didn’t follow. The results on international testing are obvious. Finland is at or near the top . . . and Sweden had the greatest drop in scores of any country being tested. So, should we be on the same path that Sweden is on? Only an idiot would say yes . . . and many of those idiots are in our government houses right now. Did I tell you that it is perfectly legal for charter schools to “lobby” (aka bribe) our state and federal governments (and it is not legal for public schools to do likewise)?

November 11, 2020

Getting It Straight

Filed under: Culture,Education,History — Steve Ruis @ 11:08 am
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I am currently making my way through a book “Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History” which I am finding quite enjoyable. I reached the point in human history at which agriculture had been developed in multiple sites around the world. Here is a snippet of that discussion:

“The development of agriculture offered huge advantages to the societies that adopted it, despite the continuous labor involved in working the land and nourishing the crops. Settled peoples are capable of much faster population growth than hunter-gatherers. Children do not have to be carried long distances and babies can be weaned off of breast milk (and fed with milled grain) much earlier, which means women can give birth more often. And in agricultural societies, more children are an advantage for they can care for more crops and livestock, mind their younger siblings and process food at home. Farmers beget farmers very effectively.

Even with primitive techniques, an area of fertile land can produce ten times more food for humans when under cultivation that when used for foraging and hunting. But agriculture is also a trap. Once a society has adopted cultivation and its numbers have grown, it is impossible to revert to a simpler lifestyle; the larger population becomes entirely dependent upon farming to produce enough food for everyone. There’s no turning back. And there are other consequences, too. High-density, settled populations supported by farming soon develop highly stratified social structures, resulting in reduced equality and a greater disparity of wealth and freedom compared to hunter-gatherers.”

This is the standard patter on this topic and it is all true . . . but, oh, my there are so many carts that have been placed before the horses, so many it is hard to know where to start a critique.

I will start with “Settled peoples are capable of much faster population growth than hunter-gatherers. Children do not have to be carried long distances and babies can be weaned off of breast milk (and fed with milled grain) much earlier, which means women can give birth more often.” Does anyone actually think that early hunter-gatherer human beings thought about population growth beyond their own family? Even within their own family, women continued to nurse their children for quite a while because it did give protection against pregnancy. We know this because one of the actions when one tribe of humans “conquered” another tribe, was that they often killed the children, so that their mothers could become pregnant with their babies sooner.

Plus this “birth control” happened naturally, and “milled cereal grains” was not an effective substitute for mother’s milk. First of all “milled” grain didn’t exist then, only coarse, stone ground cereal did, which was harder to digest, required longer cooking, and was nowhere near as nutritious as breast milk; all of which was easily observed.

So, who benefited from having a larger population? The argument is there would be more hands to do work, but also there would be more mouths to feed. And a larger population guaranteed that all the prey animals in the area would be hunted into oblivion, as would the shellfish, fish, and other contributors to a healthy diet. (Think about what happened to the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Oregon. Hint: they ended up dragging a dead elk for three days back to their encampment to have something at all to eat.)

I do not think there was much of a society to make such decisions. Which brings me to: “The development of agriculture offered huge advantages to the societies that adopted it.” Societies didn’t adopt agriculture; people did. Before there were the first cities, there were many, many, many small villages which supported small populations of humans who mixed in a little agriculture (you had to hang around to tend/protect your crops) with hunting and gathering. Usually these were near a stream or river, which supplied fresh water as well as fish, shellfish, etc. Agriculture happened through the accumulation a small, family level efforts. It was never “adopted by societies.”

Which brings me to “High-density, settled populations supported by farming soon develop highly stratified social structures, resulting in reduced equality and a greater disparity of wealth and freedom compared to hunter-gatherers.” Excuse me but high density populations could not form until extensive agriculture was under way. This means irrigation controls, crop land controls with protections from foraging animals, and all of this over many, many hectares of land. This only happened because of “highly stratified social structures” existing first. Kings, viziers, priests, et. al. were the designers and organizers of “high density populations.” The archaeological evidence for this is overwhelming. Agriculture didn’t cause the stratification, large-scale agriculture was caused by the stratification.

Who benefits when “Farmers beget farmers very effectively.” It is not the farmers so much as it is the elites who are confiscating the “excess grain” to support them and their lifestyles. Grain is at the heart of most of these high-density populations because it can be dried and stored and so protect the community from the vagaries of weather and climate, infestations, and diseases. Since it can be dried and stored, it can also be taxed, that is confiscated. All of this requires a stratified society. The elites started in charge and they have stayed in charge, by hook or crook.

What was left out of the “standard patter” above is slavery. The elites took advantage of their confiscation of the “excess labor” (nice euphemism, that) of the masses to expand the number of elites (people who did not grow food or hunt for a living) in the form of “soldiers’ who raided nearby villages for slaves. Slaves did not need to be paid, just fed and only minimally at that and well, slaves beget slaves very effectively. The development of large scale agriculture also lead to the development of a large scale slavery.

Only the elites benefited from the growth of this “society.” The elites got lives of physical ease and even wealth and all the farmers and slaves got was . . . trapped. (It is a well-known fact that when agriculture became widespread, human beings became shorter, lighter, and more disease ridden. It is presumed this was due to the switch from a rich, varied diet to a vastly more narrow one.)

It is much easier on our egos to say “look at what agriculture did to us” as opposed to admitting that the greed of elites drove the whole process.

* * *

I do not blame the author for this lack of precision, there is only so much one person can know. I am, as I said, enjoying this book, and will report on the whole thing later.

November 6, 2020

Ever Want to Write a Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel?

Filed under: Art,Education — Steve Ruis @ 12:43 pm
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I have been engaging in the Q&A site Quora for quite some time and lo and behold, two Grand Dames of fantasy and science fiction, Mercedes Lackey and C.S. Friedman are dispensing fabulous advice to writers on Quora. Check them out of this interests you. I consider some of their advice to be priceless, and they are founts of wisdom on other issues as well. Ms. Lackey is an expert on birds, for example.

October 14, 2020

Some Misunderstandings About Education

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 12:46 pm

First, the current understanding of what an education is, here in the U.S., is derived from a factory model. The raw materials/feedstock, our children, are fed into one end of the system and the output is, supposedly, educated citizens coming out the other. In this viewpoint, education is something done to children. And, if we want improvements in our school systems, we look at the buildings, the teachers, the curriculum, that is we look at the factory, because it determines the output.

Instead, I suggest that education should be something we do with children. It is clear that there are children who embrace the process and get a maximal benefit from it. This is often done at first to please parents but usually turns into a self-centered love of the process, including efforts to tailor the process to the needs of the student. At the other end of the spectrum are students who feel that education is a process aimed against them, by people pretending to be their friends. They often reject their teachings and teachers and, if this is prolonged, can result in such students being relegated to an educational wasteland we call “alternative schools.” Often these are people who end up dropping out of the system, whether in attendance or not.

Clearly, the children have enough power to shape this system and should be a significant focus and source of wisdom when considering how to improve the system. But we eschew this approach because, well, they are students, what do they know?

Education is a social system and ignoring most of the participants as non-stakeholders is foolish. Expecting a similar outcome from a process when engaging such a variety of starting points is also foolish.

* * *

Second, education is a social process in which people are taught how to think (not what to think) and how to act and how to work with others. You cannot teach people how to work with one another by replacing the other students and/or teacher with a computer. To only teach kids via computer is to doom them with a vastly inferior education. Those students on Star Trek learning lessons via their tablets have an artificial intelligence at the other end, not a piece of educational software. And that process is only to supplement their face-to-face educations. (Imagine learning to interact with aliens with no aliens to interact with.)

So, the “factory model” thinkers who are looking for more cost effective ways to teach kids are doomed to failure before they even start.

I will tell you what a really expensive education is: one that fails to educate students. It is much cheaper to spend more money on getting kids into high quality educational settings than anything else. Students who find self worth in such a system are less likely to be law-breakers, drug addicts, etc. and much more likely to be productive citizens in a society such as ours. The old line about car mechanics telling you “you can pay me now or pay me (more) later” really applies here.

* * *

Third, private education is not inherently better or even inherently different from public education. There is the perception in this country that “private” is better than “public.” There is nothing to support this attitude. When widely available test scores are compared and corrected for the socioeconomic standing of the students, students in public schools do as well as students in private schools. What the private schools do, though, is to exclude the poor from their pool of students and so raise, on average, their student performances. Their curricula are not superior. Their teachers are not superior. Their facilities are not superior, they just exclude poor students by the simple expedient of charging a lot of money. A private grammar school next door to our first condo when we moved to Chicago, charges $24,000 per year to attend. Poor students had access to this school . . . they just could afford to go. Just like their parent’s have access to health care, they just can’t afford to take advantage of it.

* * *

Fourth, poverty is the enemy of educational improvement. Eliminating poverty is not a job schools can tackle but there are things that can be done to offset it. For one, all public schools should offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. The cost of this is far less than a recent major fighter jet system that was ordered but will never be used. If we do this, then no kid can use hunger as an excuse as to why they can’t pay attention, because they won’t be hungry.

Similarly there should be common health screenings and treatments for all school kids. This would be far cheaper than the diseases spread by children when they get infected through lack of care and exposure to disease. The current pandemic is teaching us this . . . again.

Schools should work to eliminate the stigma of being poor, something promoted only by the wealthy class.

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