03/21/2011 06:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Children First?

A couple of weekends ago, I found myself chatting with a local parent who was born and raised in Europe. Once we exchanged information about our careers, the conversation naturally turned to education, and recent news coverage of education issues:

"I have to say, I find this really strange. I feel sorry for you, those of you who work as teachers. Everything is about conflict, and cutting things. In Europe, especially when I was growing up, the talk was about 'Here's what we need to do for our kids, now how do we pay for it?' I worry about what to do for [my son's] education in a few years, because I feel like I can't trust the public schools in Denver."

I winced, both at his (justifiable) pity for folks in my profession, and the worry he expressed about his son's schooling.

"Here," he continued, "it seems like there's no guarantee that things will be provided for, so all the parents have this mentality, that 'I'm just going to do what's best for my kid, and to Hell with everybody else.' And I don't want to get caught up in all that, but I have a responsibility to my child. My wife and I are thinking of moving back to Europe, just so we don't have to deal with all this ... My brother's back there, and their lives are so much simpler about all this."

The conversation stuck with me. "Here's what we need to do for our kids, now how do we pay for it?" sounds exactly like my idea of putting children first. When I think of how my parents budgeted when I grew up, or when I watch my friends re-prioritize their lives now that they're having children, the conversation is always about: "Here's what my kids need, and here's what we want for them; what do we need to do to make that happen?"

My parents made huge sacrifices so that my sister and I could have better educational opportunities than they did, both in terms of the school system they moved us to, as well as the kinds of non-school opportunities they worked hard to provide. At times when they could have bought themselves something or made their own lives easier, they chose instead to give us music and dance lessons. They also sacrificed their free time to drive to those lessons, attend performances, participate in fundraisers, you name it. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) All of the parents I know have cut their personal spending so they can afford to provide what their children need, and some work second and even third jobs so they can make ends meet, or live in a safer neighborhood, or provide sports training and academic tutors, or pay tuition to schools they feel will respect their values and their children's specific needs.

This is not to say that they don't share a date night when they can, or spend time with adult friends, or that they completely neglect themselves. After all, parents are people too -- they have value and worth independently of their children. (And as my mother says, "You always have to take care of yourself first. You're no good to anyone else if you don't.") Rather, it means that because they recognize that their children depend on them, they put their children's best interests at the center of their household decision-making and budgeting.

That's not what I see when I look at the our society as a whole. We've recently started to talk a great game about putting children first, but we don't conduct ourselves that way. For instance, though I've met fantastic parents who hunt and collect guns, I've never met one who would spend money on a new one if it meant not providing food, clothing, or shelter for their child. By contrast, this country spends billions on weapons and war, while some of our children starve. Similar analogies can be made for most aspects of public spending, especially during "austere" times like these, when our appetite for spending cuts disproportionately affects children.

(Another analogy: in addition to cutting out luxuries, many parents are willing to work two and three jobs -- if they can find them -- so that they can provide their children with the basics and even some important extras. That's the home-budget equivalent of raising taxes: if their current revenue stream is insufficient for what they need to accomplish, they do what they can to increase it so that it becomes sufficient. Returning to a progressive tax structure, where the wealthy contribute a greater percentage than middle and working class people, could accomplish the same end without requiring working families to sacrifice more than they currently do.)

No, what I see instead are painful cuts to programs that provide school lunches, health care, and other necessities for needy children. I also see a number of cost-cutting measures masquerading as "reform." Though eliminating teachers' due process rights, banning collective bargaining, and taking a "get tough" leadership approach have not been shown to systematically improve student outcomes, they're very attractive to those who would like to control costs and appear to be doing something about a pressing social problem. The fact that these conditions are often counterproductive and cruelly stressful for teachers -- and students, by extension -- isn't supposed to bother us, I suppose. Snarl and snipe and fire away at those bad old teachers; it's not like they've sacrificed all that much of themselves for others' benefit. "Stay until the job is done," do more for less, and don't you dare stand up for yourself -- that's "selfish."

Elsewhere, "Children First" means "Here's what all children need and deserve. Let's figure out how we make that happen." In present-day America, "Children First" means, "Well, we won't really invest in all of you. We won't sacrifice our tax breaks, or our ideologies, or our bigger, better budget priorities to ensure that you stay healthy, well-fed, and enrolled in schools like the ones attended by our most privileged families."

"But we'll treat everyone else around you so poorly that you'll come out ahead by comparison."