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Franklin Schargel

Franklin Schargel

Posted: March 9, 2011 12:18 PM

Scapegoating Educators


Hunting season has begun and educators are the targets.

The governors of Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey, and Ohio and now the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island have determined that educators and public education make highly visible, easy to attack victims. They are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of public servants. But not all "public servants" only those who are "not essential." Essential services like the police, firemen, public hospital and sanitation workers have been exempted from the cuts.

Educators did not cause this problem. But it is easier to target educators rather than the financial, insurance and banking industries that did.

Education, in most states, is a major component in the makeup of state and local budgets. Many states spend close to 50 percent of their budget on schools. But politicians tell their constituents that education is expensive. Ignorance is far more expensive.

Estimates of the percentage of prisoners who are school dropouts range as high as 82 percent. Prisons cost taxpayers more than $32 billion a year. Every year that an inmate spends in prison costs $22,000. An individual sentenced to five years for a $300 theft costs the public more than $100,000. The cost of a life term averages $1.5 million. Some states are spending more money on prisons than education.

Over the course of the last 20 years, the amount of money spent on prisons was increased by 570 percent while that spent on elementary and secondary education was increased by only 33 percent. No school district in the country spends that much on education.

Education affects a lot of people, not just educators. It affects parents, businesses, as well as law enforcement. But more importantly, it affects our future and our global competitiveness. Wisconsin Democrat Representative Tamara Grigsby said, "Governor Walker's budget represented an absolute annihilation of education in the state." It was not long ago that the president, businesspeople and state governors were decrying the fact that our schools were not "globally competitive." But since children don't vote, they are easy targets.

Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, is cutting small business taxes while trying to reduce essential spending and threatening to prevent public employees from striking. The state has a budgetary shortfall of $3 billion over the past two years (Wisconsin budgets biennially). But Walker campaigned on creating a business-friendly climate, and called a special legislative session to enact his plans.

Walker won legislative approval for the centerpiece of his tax cut plan, a supermajority requirement for sales or income tax rate increases. The new law does not prevent property tax rate increases or other tax adjustments.

Walker promised tax cuts for businesses on the campaign trail and introduced the bill as part of his jobs-creation agenda. He hasn't said how he plans to make up the lost revenue, and Democrats have blasted the cuts as too insignificant to stimulate job creation.

The media is comparing public and private sector employee salaries but is failing (in most cases) to recognize that public employees have college degrees. According to Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, "Forty-eight percent of government employees have college degree compared to 23 percent in the private sector. Teachers, social workers, public lawyers all are required to have at least four years of college." According to Dr. Reich, "comparing apples to apples and you'd see that over the last 15 years the pay of public sector workers has dropped relative to private-sector employees with the same level of education. Public sector workers earn 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private sector." (Council of Supervisors & Administrators' News, February Edition, Page 3.)

The Green Bay Packers are reportedly planning to ask local voters to approve extension of a special additional 0.5 percent sales tax, worth $19 million annually, to fund their purchase and redevelopment of land around Lambeau Field. Public policy experts oppose the extension, arguing that sales tax revenue can be put to better use, like public education and transportation funding.

In his effort to encourage business growth in the state, Governor Walker has proposed eliminating state capital gains taxes without identifying how to make up for those tax eliminations.

Legislators state that state budget imbalances have been caused by unfunded retiree health coverage liabilities and pensions. But these underfunded programs have been well known over a period of time and little or nothing has been done to adjust the funding.

Governor Walker has conspicuously exempted police and firefighters -- both unions backed his campaign last year. While the governor is demanding savings from state employees and the low-income citizens who rely on public services, he is also advocating a cut in corporate taxes, which will increase the state's deficit and proposing no-bid sales of government assets.

Compare what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey with what is happening in Nebraska. Republican Governor Dave Heinemann has proposed a $16.5 million initiative aimed at attracting jobs while saying he will not raise taxes. He is aware that his state must spend money on education and job programs in order to attract economic development.

Governor Walker contends that bargaining rights for public employees has caused state deficits to dramatically increase. But states that deny employees bargaining rights like Nevada and North Carolina are running deficits of over 30 percent.

Something is wrong with the picture in Wisconsin. Attacking those most vulnerable and those least responsible for the state financial crisis may make sense to the governor but makes little sense to many.