molokai mules

Today, June 24, this petition will be sent to California Governor Jerry Brown. It opposes SB277, the bill that would abolish “personal belief exemptions” of parents of California children who would like their unvaccinated kids to attend public schools. The bill permits medical exceptions, but not the religious/personal kind, so if the bill passes and Brown signs it, almost every child in California will be required to receive a prescribed set of vaccinations before enrolling in any public school.

If you haven’t been following this, the fight over SB277 has already produced a few compromises: limiting the list of required vaccines to 10, not insisting that schools report immunization rates, and “grandfathering” in certain kids who don’t currently have shots. One wonders if all these compromises are making this edifice of California’s health shakier than the edifice currently connecting Oakland to San Francisco. Personally, I have a better idea. Let’s get to that in a minute.

There’s been something very California about this whole odyssey, from the “inciting incident” (that’s screenwriter-speak for you) of a measles outbreak six months ago at Disneyland that sickened at least 136 people, to the Democratic-led legislative super-majority loving SB277 like it’s bottled water, to the resistance from liberal-elite enclave communities like Beverly Hills, Silicon Valley, Rancho Santa Fe, and Marin County as though it’s the wrong bottled water. If SB277 passes, California will become one of three states that mandate vaccines for public school, the other two being Mississippi and West Virginia. If you’re thinking “I don’t usually name those three states in the same breath” it may feel as though MS and WV over-reacted to too little government presence in their rural areas, while CA is just push-push-pushing forward its version of LBJ’s Great Society – and like LBJ, getting pushback from the right and the hard left.

Like any parent of a kid with severe autism (my kid doesn’t talk, can’t tell me anything about where he hurts or how he feels), I have strong feelings about this issue. I’d call them strongly mixed feelings. I preserve the possibility that one of Dar’s early childhood vaccines may have adversely affected him – not caused his autism per se (experts now feel autism is genetic), but somehow affected or activated some latent potential for autism. I know Jenny McCarthy is no role model, but let’s just say that if I was in a room with a lawyer, I would never sign a paper that said: no vaccine contributed to my child’s condition. And I don’t want to hear any lectures about perpetuating “anti-science” views. On a personal note, I named my child after the greatest scientist of all time, and then God (or someone, or fate) turned around and made my child autistic. So spare me people like Laura Clawson in the Daily Kos: “Anti-vaxxers don’t just want the right to not vaccinate their children. They want the right to do so without facing any consequences themselves—or at least, any more consequences than they can inflict on others in the form preventable disease.” Skip the lecture and think about the virtues and vices of SB277.

The authors of the linked petition are calling SB277 unconstitutional. And it’s true that any reasonable reading of that document allows that no one should be forced to stick any medicine (or anything) in their child or themselves. As a sometimes-libertarian, I agree with that anyway. But the petition is being disingenuous when it claims that anyone is being forced to vaccinate – instead, unvaccinated kids are being excluded from public school (with medical exceptions). And it’s also being disingenuous because public school is not quite a constitutional right.

Having said that, I do happen to agree that everyone has a right to a public education. As regular readers here know, I think outside the box, unlike most of the proponents and opponents of SB277. Thus, I have a compromise that’s so wonderful, none of them will like it.

As I said, SB277 has compromised, but in the wrong places. At this point, I would pass SB277 as is (let’s not refight those “grandfathering” battles), but with an added provision about making public allowances for unvaccinated children (let’s call them UVC). In some cases, this might take the form of a separate public school for UVC. (Yes, I know that some parents choose some vaccines and not others; you want your kids in the main public school, you have to do all the recommended vaccines.) That may well depend on a teacher who’s willing to teach to UVC. Such a teacher should be given a little more money – the same pay bump that’s already part of California’s sliding scale for teachers who are willing to teach in California’s low-income neighborhoods.

Now wait, you may object, this could entail long bus rides from one California town to another, and besides, the UVC-schools may acquire a bit of a leper-colony reputation, like the Hawaiian island of Molokai once upon a time. Yeah, well, right now I’m playing the world’s tiniest violin with my bow in the shape of a hypodermic needle. If anything, I’d say the so-called “anti-vaxxer” crowd should embrace the distinction and start welcoming people to Molokaidemy Elementary. (See, and you thought that photo at the top had nothing to do with the rest of the post.)

If for logistical reasons Molokaidemy can’t be a public school, the provision should allow that it might be a private one. My proposed amendment to SB277 would allow for some kind of home-schooling or alternative-schooling, and in that case, California’s state government needs to cut a check to the family for the amount that the state had already allocated for the child – the percentage that would have been paid to the teacher, facility maintenance, the kid’s meal plan, like that.

Now, as the taxpayer cutting that check, I expect to get something for my money, which in this case is mandatory, state-sponsored online testing. Yes, in case you’ve been out of the system for the last decade, California now tests kids in (every) kindergarten. What happens if UVC fail those tests? I’d like to say: make them take the vaccines and send them to regular public school. But what I’d really say is: double up on the testing. Force the UVC to do even better, the same way that California college students have to keep up their grades to maintain their scholarships. If that fails, triple up on it. If a given kid still isn’t passing, well, I guess he has to repeat third grade again and again, and eventually we’ll have…some very interesting statistics on UVC and home-schooling.

I don’t claim this to be a perfect solution, but I don’t know that such a formula exists in this witches’ brew of public health versus personal freedom. I do think that as a general rule, we have to move forward as if the science is right, and that applies to climate change, engineering projects, cell phones causing cancer, GMOs in food, and both my children…we did vaccinate our second child even after knowing the first was autistic. But freedom is still freedom. Mai-tais at Molokaidemy, anyone?