Thursday, March 11, 2010

Squeeze, pain & tough choices

Parents and school-age kids in Kansas City, Missouri know what it feels like to be squeezed.

The Kansas City public schools, fast running out of money, last night decided to close 29 of its 61 schools beginning next fall. Its 18,000 students will be portioned among the schools that'll remain open. The district also will slash about 700 of 3,000 jobs, 40% of those cuts in teaching positions.

Vacant school buildings in KC, Detroit and communities across the country are monuments to overspending in the face of a shrinking tax base. Urban flight, home foreclosures and high unemployment have reduced revenue, while districts have continued to buckle under pressure to build more, bigger and grander facilities that declining enrollment can't support -- and which, in the end, have had little constructive effect on education anyway.

Now, even knowing the pain brought on by the squeeze, the worst thing we could do is try to reopen shuttered schools any time soon. Without money to pay for them, that would postpone rather than prevent the inevitable. It'd probably make things even worse.

KC's public school district did the right thing. There should be no federal or state bailouts. If Kansas City wants more than 32 schools, then its citizens need to bear the tax burden of supporting them.

As I typed that I could hear so-called "fiscal conservatives" cheering. I wonder if they could hear me laughing.

Present-day conservatism advocates reducing spending and promises lower taxes -- a contradiction that fuels economic train wrecks like the one in Kansas City. (At least fiscal liberals are consistent, if patently irresponsible, in inflating both entitlements and taxes.) Conservatives are quick to support closing schools and gutting social programs, but they blink when asked to let a big bank fail.

Hold the principle, pass the bailout. Extra debt on the side, please.

This capitalist perversion is the punch-line of fiscal conservatives' inside joke. The rest of us say, straight-faced, that mismanagement is mismanagement, whether it afflicts an automaker, an insurance company or a school district. An economic crisis exacerbated by declining revenue and overspending must be attacked from both ends -- increasing taxes and cutting services or, in the commercial sector, raising prices and reducing costs.

Does it hurt? Absolutely -- and it's the only way to clean up the colossal mess we've made. Suck it up, People.

But what about those kids? Crammed into classrooms with too few teachers, without the extracurricular activities that help develop well-rounded young citizens, won't the children suffer?

If we, as parents and communities, do nothing differently, of course they'll suffer. We can't make tough choices without accepting the consequences.

Wait -- did I say consequences? For those who rely on schools to educate and raise our children, consequences may be the right word. Some of us, however, see it as an opportunity to do more of what we've been doing -- or should have been doing -- all along.