CUTTING OURSELVES

December 17, 2008

 

    I’ve said before that difficult financial circumstances can and should force a rethinking of the way we organize and manage public education.  I’ve said, too, that many of the problems faced by our public schools cannot be solved by additional funding, higher academic expectations for students being low cost items requiring cultural shifts rather than additional expenditures.   I have tried to encourage school management and our own union leadership and membership to think about how we use our financial resources, always trying to think of ways to squeeze more out of every dollar.  I remind you of my past comments to lay a predicate for what I am about to say about what appears to be a reflexive response of many to the current financial crisis – CUT – CUT- CUT!   And by cut, they usually mean cut public employees and services, especially teachers.  

   What sort of crazy idea is it to believe it appropriate to fund public schools in accordance with the ebb and flow of the business cycle?  In a depressed economy are there fewer children to educate?  Is a society’s interest in an educated citizenry any less significant because of a recession?  Which children in our society get hurt most when schools that are generally under funded to begin with are forced to do with less?  How come we don’t close some of our roads in response to economic downturns – shut off some street lights or close down other areas of our society’s infrastructure?  Why at a time of greater demand for public services do we think it appropriate to dismantle vital pieces of social infrastructure?  When we think of stimulating the economy, how come we don’t think of creating jobs in public schools, hospital and libraries?  Could it be, as Linda Hirshman has suggested, because these jobs are mostly filled by women?  

   The more we raise such questions, the more the reactions of our political leaders to the fiscal crisis are revealed for the absurdities they are.  Take Governor Paterson’s proposed budget, for example.  The Governor proposes to cut schools and healthcare by billions of dollars, blithely telling us that we can’t afford to keep spending as we have.  Instead of seriously addressing the need of the state to raise revenue to preserve its infrastructure, he proposes a bizarre list of tax and fee increases, most of which fall disproportionately on the lower classes.  My favorite among these is his proposal for an 18% tax on the price of sugared soft drinks, or the so-called anti-obesity tax.  That such a tax is very unlikely to reduce consumption of Coke and Pepsi and therefore do little to relieve the budget crisis is almost beside the point.  More importantly, this foolhardy proposal and others in the Governor’s list of “hidden tax increases”  sends the very unfortunate, unintended messages that welfare of the citizens of the state is so unimportant that we don’t all have a responsibility to fund them to the extent we are financially able to.   

 Imagine a political leader coming to his constituents and saying, “My fellow citizens. Government revenue is way down and will remain down for some time.  Times like this measure our ability to ensure the well being of our citizens.  In good economic times and bad, we have to have schools.  In good economic times and bad, we have to have hospitals.  Bad economic times simply require those of us who have been more fortunate to bear a larger share of the cost of providing for the security of the people of our state.  I am, therefore, proposing to our legislature a graduated increase in the income tax to provide the revenue to guarantee that no child receives a diminished education, no sick person goes untreated, no college eligible student is turned away for lack of money – in short to guarantee that our state meets its responsibilities to its citizens.  We are Americans and New Yorkers.  I know you will agree with me that we cannot settle for anything less.”  Imagine!  Can you?

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