Ruth Bass: Chipping away at school budgets hurts us all

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RICHMOND — We take it for granted that we'll pay the electric bill every month, the driver's license fee every five years, the car registration whenever it runs out. It's the same for water, a can of tuna fish, a six-pack of beer or a pair of running shorts. We rarely question the sales tax on a new refrigerator, although we sometimes wait for a the tax-free day.

But along comes the bill for state and federal income taxes, and we decide the sky is falling. Political campaigns spend more time on whether the other guy is going to raise taxes than they do on whether they'd like to invade whatever country is in an uproar at the moment. (As an aside, it's interesting that when we land troops in a foreign country, it's to establish democracy or train soldiers who are on the right side of things; when the Russians roll tanks, it's a war crime.)

The fact is that when we pay taxes we are paying for our daily lives. If we pretty much like our daily lives, the sky will stay aloft. It's not about a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. We pay for the security of police officers and armed forces, for keeping our country free of the diseases that attack so often elsewhere, for highways and pothole repair — for the wonder of being able to sleep at night knowing we don't need to post a guard on the front steps.

And, very importantly, we pay for education, possibly the most important section of the budget. At any high school that still puts civics on the required list, teenagers are exposed to the idea that democracies function best with an informed citizenry as opposed to an ignorant rabble. But beyond that, education influences all the other things we want in our daily life. It's the key to less crime, fewer drug addicts, less poverty, lower unemployment, good health — even more happiness.

Thus it is quite disturbing, as town meeting time rolls around in Berkshire County, that so many communities are rejoicing in school budgets that are going up 2 percent or less; applauding cuts that could include the person who deals with potential dropouts and truants; pushing elimination of art or music to save money; acting as if the things an educator wants may include what they consider frills. It doesn't take Einstein to see what happens in communities where faculty contracts provide for 3 percent step raises: Something affecting students directly will be cut, including such things as faculty, counselors, curriculum — if the budget is going up only 2 percent.

It's also disturbing that in sports-riveted America, few ask that budgets be tightened for football, basketball, lacrosse, swimming, skiing, baseball, track, soccer, tennis, etc. Those are valuable, too, but not more so than art, music and advanced placement classes.

Pitting the welfare of students against the wishes of taxpayers shouldn't happen. It might be good to have neutral outsiders scan a school budget and ask questions about whatever is in there. It's not a good thing for the unwilling taxpayer to complain about education. Without top-notch school systems, we will unwittingly invest instead in poverty, illiteracy, jail cells, welfare and all the health issues that are attached to those things.

At a Head Start class in Berkshire County last week, a rainbow collection of 4- and 5-year-olds, chosen from a low-income population, spent their morning in organized chaos — doing yoga, painting, learning to cooperate, having a nutritious lunch, automatically saying please and thank you, taking turns with an iPad, learning to count, write their names, keep journals and, for some, starting to read. Noisy and busy, they were absorbing information and skills the way sponges take in water.

Oddly, the federal government has periodically cut funding for Head Start. Classes begin later in the fall and close earlier in the spring these days, and less money means a smaller staff and fewer kids. Those who are eligible are in a lottery. Looking around that room, a lot of little lives seemed to be pointed toward a bright future in kindergarten and beyond. We should be happy to help pay for them.

But if it's a lottery, what about the ones who didn't make the cut? Perhaps we owe them, too.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Berkshire Eagle. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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