Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I have generally stayed away from politics in my blogging. This is partly because politics in this country have become so very divisive --  we seem to have lost the ability to have friendly give and take.  I always thought of myself as a moderate, and increasingly I find myself largely alienated from both parties. 

But I have to say, I am horrified by what's going on in Ohio.  It's not only the actions that are being taken -- though they are pretty shocking -- it's the whole mindset behind them.  There seems to be this assumption that teachers and firefighters and cops and other public employees are greedy, overpaid people who are to blame for the financial woes of the state.  While I agree that there were excesses that needed to be corrected, I see them as a result of a collective bargaining process where apparently, the bargainers on the side of the state and other government bodies didn't do their job very well.  There were two sides to those negotiations, so how is it all the fault of one side?

Further, there is the assumption that those people are overcompensated.  Maybe a few civil servants are, I don't know.  But I think teachers and firefighters and cops are -- corny as it sounds -- heros. I'll grant you, not every public employee falls into that category, but those categories and probably others do.  I hear complaints that firefighters and cops get to retire too young, and it's bankrupting us.  OK, so we need to find a new way to finance it.  But seriously, do you want 60 year old firefighters answering the call when your house is on fire?  I don't think so.

In February, the Kasich administration passed a regulation prohibiting school districts from requiring that contractors pay the prevailing wage.  So moving forward, very few school building projects will go to union employers, as there is always a non-union shop that can bid a job lower using sub-standard labor, or standard labor so desperate they are willling to take any work at any price.  I figure it's the school buildings today, other state projects tomorrow.

Kasich has also told people that if their school district asks for an increase in local taxes to offset the loss of state funds, they should turn it down -- they aren't cutting anybody by more than 8% to 10%, and anybody ought to be able to trim 10% from their budget.  But there aren't very many discretionary expenditures in a school district budget, so about the only things they can do is pay teachers less, increase class sizes, and cut out the arts and elective classes. 

So the future I see is that the quality of our education goes down.  Currently, we measure right around the middle of the pack in things like percent of 8th graders taking algebra, percent of high school students scoring well on AP tests, scoring on standardized math tests, etc.  But if the norm becomes larger class sizes and fewer of the enhancements that make school bearable for kids, I predict that performance will fall. 

I also predict that over time, we will see a decrease in teacher quality.  When I was in college, lo those 30 years ago, teachers were not as well paid as most other professional positions.  So if a kid was an education major who really shone in their subject matter discipline, they were usually lured away with the promise of more money.  Over time, a lot of effort went into raising the pay and the standards to ensure that teaching was a respected profession that attracted the brightest and the best, and compensated accordingly.  If we do away with the schedules that guarantee experienced teachers get more money, worsen working conditions, and generally treat them like leeches draining American productivity, we will stop attracting top students, and the talent pool will drift down to the new, lower level of compensation and conditions.  Oh, there will always be some people who teach because they experience it as a calling, thank God.  And some who maybe go into it for wrong reasons or general mediocrity when they're young, and mature into good teachers along the way.  Some will still choose it even with its limitations because it offers summers home with their own kids.  But I don't think that will provide enough  high quality teachers. 

But that's not all.  Since public entities cannot require prevailing wage contracts, all public projects will get bid down to lower prices.  That will eventually bid down wages on non-public projects, which will lower the prevailing wage.  So all the citizens out there paying taxes to support the schools and other government entities will earn less, thus pay less taxes, so the fiscal crisis will just get worse. With less tax revenue, schools will have to cut further.  Education gets worse, and the cycle spirals downward.

And as I understand it, the rationale for all this is that it is supposed to make us more attractive to business.  But don't businesses want an educated work force?  Don't they want a good infrastructure (which we won't be able to afford as everyone's wages drop?)  Isn't it better for most businesses to be in a community with pretty low unemployment, so the public has more buying power? 

I just don't see how lowering the earning power of the citizenry, demonizing public servants, lowering the quality of public education, and eventually shrinking the tax base can be a good thing.  I look forward and I see an inevitable decline in the quality of life in Ohio. I hope like everything that I am wrong, that I'm overreacting and it really isn't as bad as it looks.  But I'm not optimistic.

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