Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Continuing the Meaningless Conversation: Budget Rage

Valerie Strauss’ 3/24/11 blog post tells the story of a fifth grader, Jocelyn Lam, who donates her $300 life savings to help protect the jobs of teachers at her school. A noble effort, no doubt. Jocelyn Lam’s heart is in the right place and I’m glad there are kids like her in this country. Her parents should be proud. She even inspired a grassroots community movement to raise money to protect teacher jobs. I like it. I love the community getting involved, rallying to support and protect their public education system. They’ve raised $20,000 so far. Well done, that’s a lot.

This is undoubtedly a nice story. It tugs the heart strings, has some inspiration in it and rallies some hope for the common people in their eternal fight against the evil adults who make all the decisions, those faceless bureaucrats and publicity hound politicians elected by the very people getting screwed.

I have some bad news though. $20,000 makes no difference. $300 makes no difference. In fact, this story makes no difference. It adds nothing to the conversation that will save teacher jobs, improve education or fix budgets. It tells a nice story about a nice gesture by a fifth grader who I hope will grow up to be a powerful education activist. I like her boldness. But unless her gesture goes viral and those thousands turn into millions, she currently lacks the resources to meaningfully accomplish her goal.

The money quote is “if only adults making education policy and budget decisions understood the value of teachers as well as Jocelyn Lam.” As if the people in charge of the school district policy decisions think teachers are worthless. As if caring more about teachers will solve multimillion dollar budget deficits. Priorities can absolutely be called into question in some cases, like in Florida. Funding tax breaks with public employee, especially teacher, layoffs is reprehensible. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is massive budget crunch nationwide, difficult decisions have to be made and no solutions are easy.

It is this lack of nuance in the reporting of municipal budget troubles and their terrible consequences that feeds the unrealistic expectations, the purposeful ignorance and the misguided rage of the electorate. If we took the time to properly and honestly explain the trade-offs involved in budgeting, the decisions faced by mayors, school boards and legislatures around the country, then maybe we could have a real discussion about what is important in this country. No matter where cuts come from it is going to hurt and someone is going to be mad. Throwing the gasoline of human interest stories that don’t provide any solutions onto the fire of budget crisis doesn’t take us forward in any meaningful way. We are doomed to continue the course and the same dishonest conversations will continue after recovery and during the next downturn.

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