Originally published in the Lebanon Advertiser, May 13, 2015
A few days ago I sat at breakfast with a group of friends. We like to get together and talk about stuff. One had been at the Lebanon School band concert the night before. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how tough it is to keep things like music and art going any more in the face of declining funding of education.
I ventured that this is a travesty. “Funding for education should be our top priority” I declared. “I agree,” said another in the group. “But then there are the folks who say welfare should be our top priority, or the environment. Every interest group is passionate that theirs should be the most important. They’ve got their lobbyists out there bidding for top billing with legislatures.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s why I think our debates should be about our core values.”
“O.K.,” said another, “so what are your core values?”
“One of them is that every one of our kids should have everything they need to be well prepared to take their place in the economy and society,” I said.
“I agree,” said my questioner. “So, that should include…” He piled on everything he could think of that kids need to have a top-rate education – some of them what we tend to think of as
“I’m playing devil’s advocate here,” he said.
“I recognize that,” I said. “And these are exactly the debates we should be having locally, and at the state, and national level.”
Indeed the debates taking place do reflect core values. The debate is about distribution of wealth, the size of government and the role of government in society and the economy. The terms of the debate as it applies to the role of government in education is raging across the country. In an article by Alice Ollstein of “ThinkProgress,” we get a look at how this is playing out at the state level in several states, notably Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana and Illinois.
Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker has placed top priority on reducing taxes on wealthy citizens and corporations driven by his belief in trickle-down economics: The surest road to a strong economy is to free wealthy property owners and corporations from burdensome taxation, to unleash their money to invest in economic growth. His first bi-annual budget contained massive tax cuts based in this ideology. Another round of cuts is scheduled in his upcoming budget.
But there is a problem. His ideology has failed miserably. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has informed him there is no rebounding economy. There is no new revenue at all. In his first two years in office, Walker has taken Wisconsin from a state with a $1 billion surplus to one with a $2 billion deficit.
He is determined to go ahead with the next round of tax cuts anyway, based, I assume, on the belief that the problem is not his ideology, but rather that he didn’t cut taxes enough. He is now determined to retrieve the situation by slashing spending. He proposes to cut spending for higher education by $275 million, almost exactly the amount his next round of tax cuts will reduce revenue; this in the face of his determination to also spend more than a billion dollars on a new professional basketball stadium in Milwaukee. (Does that sound familiar? How about the new football stadium being built by cash-strapped Missouri, parallel with further cuts in spending for education?] Wisconsin’s elementary and secondary schools are scheduled for a cut as well, at $120 million.
The Wisconsin State University system has already begun laying off hundreds of professors and staff. But other values are beginning to compete with Walker’s agenda. The legislature soundly rejected his new budget. A majority of Republican legislators voted no, joining every Democrat in the legislature. A student movement called United Council of UW Students has mobilized opposition to Walker’s cuts.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, Gov. Brownback’s draconian cuts in taxes have so decimated the state’s coffers, its public schools are closing early this year. They’re out of money.
And in Louisiana, the state university system is considering declaring bankruptcy in the face of Gov. Bobbie Jindal’s huge cuts in taxes on wealthy and corporate entities, consistent with the trickle-down ideology of his fellow governors. Students and their supporters have stormed the State capitol in opposition to Jindal’s tax cuts. The Louisiana House of Representatives has passed a budget that erased more than $200 million of the governor’s tax cuts. The governor threatens a veto.
Here in Illinois, our wanabee Scott Walker, recently elected Governor Bruce Rauner, has proposed a massive budget slashing program as a way of balancing the state’s budget. This is accompanied by huge tax cuts for (guess who) wealthy and corporate taxpayers. Like Walker, he sees that as the way to prosperity.
Like Walker, Rauner’s proposed budget was overwhelmingly rejected by the state House of Representatives. As in Wisconsin, members of Rauner’s own party rebelled. Yes, I am aware that Illinois is in the midst of a major budget crisis. Rauner’s formula for addressing the crisis is untenable, unless we are willing to become like Greece.
The Occupy Movement was the launching pad of a growing push-back against a value system which places highest priority on wealth accumulation by the already-wealthy. The campaign for the $15 minimum hourly wage is an outgrowth of that movement, as is the growing counter-campaign for economic and social justice and quality of life values.
Illinois Voices for Children is one organization pushing back hard against Gov. Rauner’s agenda. Next week we will explore IVC’s proposals for putting the state’s fiscal house in order, based on quality of life values.
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