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The Problem With 300 Million People Getting What They Want

A new USA Today/Gallup poll reports that Americans think their states are in budget crises, but are opposed to doing anything about it. This is hardly a recipe calculated to bring forth or to reward political courage. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their states are in a budget crisis (most of the others apparently don't follow the news), but a majority opposed every conceivable solution.

Respondents were dead-set against boosting taxes, with just 27% in favor and 71% opposed. That means, presumably, officials need to cut spending. But just 47% of respondents supported proposals to "cut or eliminate certain state programs," while 48% were opposed. And decades of polling tell us that support would have been lower still if respondents were asked whether specific programs (e.g. cops, schools, libraries, or parks) should be cut. So, if voters won't support efforts to raise taxes or cut spending, all that's left is to cut back pay for state workers. But voters opposed that too, with 44% supporting proposals to "cut pay or benefits for state workers" and 53% opposed.

The result is that leaders--whether President Bush or Obama, this governor or that--have consistently ducked hard choices, cut taxes, and introduced new programs--while mewling assurances that we don't need to worry. They present cooked numbers that massively understate our problems. And we reward them for it. This is the leadership we've chosen.

Now, we find ourselves, in large part through our own appetites and irresponsibility, in a fiscal crunch we eagerly characterize as catastrophic, and yet we're unwilling to do anything about it. Consequently, it's unsurprising that 61% of respondents in the USA Today/Gallup poll say they oppose proposals (like that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Those governors who are trying to clean up after the circus are forced to swim against a tide of petulant self-indulgence.

If educators and education leaders want to leave our students, and their kids, more than a hollow husk of a nation, we've an obligation to help educate the public as to the hard choices of some kind that have to be made--and to lead by example, by striving to be exemplary stewards of public funds. This, after all, is real character education.

Absent vocal and serious support for making choices, our leaders will have little incentive or opportunity to, you know, lead. Rather, they'll use gimmicks, duct tape, and baling wire so as to stack the bills for our timidity on the backs of our students. Then, our kids might find the quality of K-12 assessments to be the least of their problems.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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