While the nation remains preoccupied by the drama of the oil leak in the Gulf, which consumes an inordinate portion of time and attention in the media, a struggle of potentially greater consequence for most American families is taking place with far less publicity.
I am referring to the scenarios being enacted in legislatures across the land as the final strokes are being placed on state budgets, and the fate of literally thousands of teachers and pupils is being decided.
As noted here more than once, the arguments over taxes and borrowing that have become louder and more pointed in Washington are nothing compared with the fiscal mayhem in capitals from Sacramento to Boston. State economies have barely begun to recover from the wreckage of the Great Recession. And since taxes are mostly collected retroactively, after individual incomes are earned and spent, it will be well into 2011 or more likely 2012 before state and local budgets can be restored to their pre-recession levels – when more people are working.
Meanwhile, state after state is wrestling with the dilemma posed by their schools, the largest single item in most of their budgets.
They were given a year’s grace when President Barack Obama dedicated a large slice of the 2009 fiscal rescue package of $787 billion to staving off the cuts that otherwise would have taken place in school budgets for this year.
That saved an estimated 300,000 or more teaching slots. But there is currently no second-year funding coming from Washington for another rescue mission. Liberal Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are trying to assemble such a package, but they have encountered resistance not only from Republicans but from moderate and conservative Democrats well aware that the voters are becoming more and more worried about the deficits and debts this nation is incurring.
Of all the dilemmas Obama faces, this may be the cruelest. The arguments on each side – for averting teacher layoffs and for avoiding even more ruinous debt – are entirely convincing. But they collide.
In an ideal world, the president and his party would respond by passing a budget resolution providing an immediate rescue package for the states and committing to longer-range economies and revenue adjustments that would assure bond markets and financial circles that, with recovery, deficits will soon start to shrink.
But as they talked among themselves before the Memorial Day recess, the Democrats could not muster the will, or the courage, even to attempt to pass a budget resolution. Instead, they prefer to leave the hard trade-offs to the commission on deficit reduction that Obama has appointed, which will not report its recommendations until after Election Day.
The irony of ironies is that while these thousands of teachers are left twisting in the wind, the states, in a rare act of courage, have committed to one another to stiffen their requirements in English and math – the most heartening step in education reform in many years.
This bipartisan movement, encouraged by the administration but not led or forced by it, has won voluntary backing from the vast majority of states. That is a powerful statement from grass-roots America about the willingness to improve the education of our children so they can measure up to international competition.
But we cannot commit to raising standards in one breath and turn around and issue layoff notices to thousands of teachers in the next. That would be as unconscionable as vowing to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban while simultaneously pulling out the increment of NATO troops.
As the days before the midterm reckoning dwindle, the inevitable paring of the Obama agenda will proceed at a faster pace. He will not be able to satisfy all the demands cascading on him. But when he looks at his young daughters, it should be clear to him that saving the schools is one promise he must keep.