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Sherman Yellen

Sherman Yellen

Posted: February 18, 2011 12:02 PM

Yesterday, my 5-year-old granddaughter Vivian spent the night with us. She took out her homework from that ubiquitous pink backpack and finished it -- something about naming tools in a toolbox, writing them down carefully in her best handwriting, and counting the nails and screws that were visible in the guest room and printing the number on her work-sheet. After that we read a few chapters from a favorite book of hers -- one of a series of cat stories by Esther Averill -- and off to bed. Vivian attends a public school in New York City, and from what I can see from her progress, her teachers are doing a fine job of educating her. This city, my city, threatens to eliminate thousands of teachers from the municipal payroll in an effort to balance the budget, and among them may be some of Vivian's younger teachers. Of course the loss of these thousands of teaching jobs and other necessary government jobs will keep us mired in unemployment figures that mean deeper economic disaster -- but that requires thinking one step beyond the immediate saving of municipal money.

This theme of cutting back on education in the name of fiscal probity is running wild throughout the country, a virus spread by the GOP. Counter to this is the knowledge that without an educated class of children we as a country face a dismal future, joining the third world with a service economy, and cut off from the innovation and entrepreneurship that has advanced America to where it is today. So far the choice has been to balance the books on the backs of our children -- and let the future attend to itself. This is the poisoned black tea that the tea party is serving to America. Yes, I have a dog in this fight. Indeed, I have three. As well as my 5-year-old granddaughter, I have a pair of 2-and-a-half-year-old grand-twins E&Z who will also be attending public schools, and I will admit that I so want to be cool as I discuss this issue -- yet I am filled with rage at the sell-out of America's children by this Grand Old Party.

I attended public schools in the late 1930s and early 40s. Our teachers had limited knowledge of child psychology and modern teaching methods. It was the four R's, reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic, and respect -- that constituted our curriculum. And somehow we managed to educate a generation of men and women who created our modern world because of the deep commitment of most Americans to a good public education. Even in the Great Depression there were enough teachers to pay attention to each child in every class. The great secret was that American society would grumble about taxes but they paid then (and at a much higher rate than we pay today): paid it so that their children would have a head-start in a difficult world.

This fanatical hatred for paying taxes -- taxes which build our bridges (my grandfather was a riveter on the Brooklyn Bridge) and paved our roads, and built the planes and ships that helped us win WWII -- all this came from taxes paid by complaining citizens who deep down understood their obligations to the future. Defeating deficits were not the holy grail of American life -- there was a belief that American ingenuity and productivity would pay those deficits down. Taxes were always a burden and always will be but they were also considered a civic duty.

I fear that unless we return to a time when our countrymen and women consider the paying of taxes for education their obligation to the future -- rather than the diminishing of deficits -- we will be downsizing America to our peril. Yes, the rich can pay taxes and still drive their dream cars -- and build their houses in the Hamptons, indeed so many of the rich like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet understand that they have a patriotic duty to pay a greater share of the taxes to educate America -- and that no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Education will fill the deficit as efficiently as re-establishing a progressive tax system. The GOP is selling economic and social snake oil and one can only hope that American's will prove too smart to buy it. Trust me, no matter what you call this anti-government rage -- it is poison to our children.