As the economic picture gets more and more bleak, the ironies loom larger and larger. Public school systems, community colleges and the state’s universities are being asked to send money back to the state or plan reductions in the coming year to help cover the looming budget shortfall, meaning classrooms will inevitably suffer. Meanwhle, the federal government is about to send billions to the automobile industry to try and save jobs and the key component of our country’s remaining industrial sector.
Money cut from schools while money is sent to the ailing private sector may appear contradictory, but in truth both measures seem to make some sense. At least they make sense given these extraordinary times.
Education ranks as the state’s number one expense. Our public schools, community colleges and universities account for 53 percent of the state budget, a whopping $11.4 billion out of a spending plan that tops $21.3 billion. When a government entity or a private business looks for savings, you go first to where most of your money is spent. A very small percentage savings in this area usually equals a lot of money.
An already pinched public school system will find the money somewhere. While some argue that the state throws too many resources at the school system, we vehemently disagree with that assessment. To the contrary, we have been pinching our public schools and public universities for a couple of decades. There’s not enough money for necessary programs, and the political emphasis on standardized test results have forced too many of those scarce resources into remediation and testing at the expense of culturally significant areas like foreign language and the arts and much-neglected areas like special education, programs for the academically gifted and libraries. And let’s not forget the woeful shortage of guidance counselors.
That said, we also believe that each individual school system can certainly do a better job of spending the money they are allotted. It’s always a good drill to pore over the budgets and scrutinize the spending. The schools will find a way to keep going despite the reductions. Dedicated classroom teachers and administrators are used to this. As administrators in last week’s story about the cuts noted, most of the reductions will come from administrative staff and supplies. Unfortunately, if these reductions become permanent the repercussions will work themselves down into the classroom over time.
As for helping out the auto industry, here’s the troubling truth — what else is there to do? Philosophically, it’s a terrible precedent for taxpayers to become responsible for helping out failing private businesses. But given the current state of the economy and the monumental job losses already suffered in this economy, it would be foolhardy to let the market deal with this problem. Some estimate that as many as 3 million jobs are tied to the auto industry. The ripple effect of the Big Three automakers going under could be too much for our shaky economy to handle.
You know, the larger issue here is that the line in the sand is now a moving target. That’s the line separating government involvement in the private sector and the free market capitalist system that we in America have embraced as the road to prosperity. Are we moving toward a European style mix of socialism and capitalism? How much will our economy have changed once we come out of this recession? If Democrats and Barack Obama move too far to the left on the economy, could it give rise to a viable third party that embraces a Democratic social philosophy and a more right-leaning view of the economy?
All important questions, no doubt, but the matter at hand is preventing further economic collapse. The best way to do that is to help the auto industry. A compromise between Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Bush administration over the weekend would use an existing fund created to pay for fuel-efficient automobile research to bail out the Big Three of Detroit. That seems a good compromise, one both parties will likely support.
When times get as tough as this, lots of the eternal verities will get smashed like champagne glasses in a fireplace to celebrate some new oath to a different kind of future. When I find myself arguing that it’s OK to cut money from schools and it’s necessary to use my tax money to help out Detroit, then a threshold has been crossed. Here’s to a brave new future, whatever it may hold.