From now well into the fall, a big story will unfold across the United States. Big as in bad. It will be terrible for our children, our communities, even the future of our country.
I’m talking about massive cuts in public services, particularly in the area of education. These cuts are a byproduct of the tail end of our recent recession. A bad economy, of course, means a decline in tax revenue. Declines in tax revenue are first felt at the local and state level. And so it is that horror stories are beginning to trickle up from across the heartland.
Some states have adopted, or are moving toward, a four-day school week. Some have shortened the school day for kids in kindergarten. Others are closing libraries and cancelling summer school. In Chicago, the student-to-teacher ratio may hit 35. In Cleveland, it’s headed for 40. Could your child learn in such a crowded classroom?
Across the country, as many as 300,000 teachers may lose their jobs between now and the beginning of the fall school year. That would be roughly equivalent to firing every public school teacher in Texas, the country’s second most populous state.
Some of the well-publicized cuts are to education, an area that first and foremost gets people’s attention. But other public services are taking a hit as well. Mass transit, health care, homeless shelters, libraries–you name it, it’s being cut as we deal with the aftereffects of the worst recession in generations.
If Congress were brave, and if this were not an election year, it could stop the hemorrhaging. And there is an irony that would be delicious if it were not so painful: These cuts come at a time when accusations are flying through the airwaves and blogosphere that we have a “socialist” president and a “big government” bent on taking everything over. (In reality, local, state and federal taxes we pay as a percent of household income are at the lowest point in 60 years, according to a recent article in USA Today. And during recessions, there’s simply less income and lower home values to tax, so revenues are going to decline.)
But while Congress frets and fiddles, some people are fighting back and speaking out. On a recent Saturday in Trenton, New Jersey, 35,000 people rallied to oppose an $820 million reduction in the state’s education budget. The previous month, a similar rally was held at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Over 15,000 people turned out and chanted, “Show some guts! Stop the cuts!”
Both rallies were the largest ever held in their respective state capitals. Both garnered ample local media coverage, but the national media was elsewhere. Thus the prevailing narrative of the day–driven by relatively small groups of angry Americans determined to hang on to their guns, fearful of immigrants and outraged at health-care reform–continues.
The truth is that across the country, in communities large and small, Americans are pushing back against cuts. People are taking to the streets and filling up public hearings with a simple and increasingly common message: We want to pay for the things that are important to us. For this to happen, everyone must pay their fair share, including corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
The clamor for keeping important government services (like schools) operating at current strength is not limited to Springfield or Trenton. In conservative enclaves from Burbank, California, to Greenville, South Carolina, taxpayers similarly are protesting proposed cuts to the schools. Other protests are happening in Atlanta, across Pennsylvania and in Rhode Island.
So what’s being done to stand up for the new silent majority–those Americans who believe that government, effectively managed, can make a difference in people’s lives? On a national level, we’ve formed a coalition called Jobs for America Now, which is backing legislation that would invest $100 billion to create one million jobs in local communities, which would help stave off many of the cuts mentioned in this article. We also support legislation that would save or create jobs for teachers.
It is time for Congress to show some guts.
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