Tamminen: Want To Solve Budget Woes? Close The Schools

Saturday, 29 Jan 2011 | 1:11 PM ET
Sean Justice | Stone | Getty Images

Every state capital in the nation is struggling with massive budget deficits—over $20 billion in stateslike California and Texas and comparable red ink everywhere else. States and cities are exploring bankruptcy to get out from under crushing debt and pension obligations, but there’s actually a better solution. Close all public schools.

In California, for example, almost half of the annual $80 billion general fund spending is for public schools, so closing them would solve the deficit and allow lawmakers to heed constituent demands for lower taxes. On its face, this sounds absurd, but let’s examine the realpolitik.

In 1970, about 40% of the nation’s wealth was held by 10% of the population. Today, almost 40% is held by just 1% of the population (and over 70% is held by just 10% of Americans). Obviously the kids of those people can afford private schools - - and mostly do attend uniformed academies with aristocratic names like “Marlborough” and “Horace Mann”. Ok, my Santa Monica neighborhood has a private school called “Crossroads”, but there has to be a New Age-ish place for Hollywood actors and their shrinks to send their kids too, right?

Of course there has to be an educated governing class, but the coal, oil, and tobacco fueled lobbyists and their Tom Delays can obviously afford the private schools too. This royalty runs the banks and big corporations that make political donations and write many laws for busy legislators (thanks to the Supreme Court, now denominated in $$ amounts with more commas), so why do we need to educate everyone else?

It’s also apparent that we’re not getting much for what we do invest. In 1970, 80% of kids graduated high school and the US was ranked #1 in every meaningful educational category. Today, only about 70% graduate, and according to OECD statistics, our students’ math capabilities are ranked behind educational giants like Poland and the Slovak Republic (how many American high school students does it take to screw in a light bulb anyway?), hardly worth the nearly $1 trillion spent each year in this country for public schools.

Moreover, those who do earn sheepskins aren’t putting them to very good use. Half the country refuses to accept the overwhelming science about the impact of human-made carbon pollution or even read a newspaper with daily headlines of unprecedented floods, famine, fire, and other consequences of climate change. Many of those grads ignore their costly education and instead cite religious texts to assert that Jesus walked with dinosaurs on an earth that is no more than 6,000 years old. Should our tax dollars be squandered for this outcome when all we apparently need is a 3500 year old story book found at no cost in the nightstand of every Motel 6?

California voters recently passed a ballot measure requiring any tax or fee increases to have a two-thirds majority of the legislature, meaning that there will be no new revenues any time soon. Taxpayers in other states are in a similar penny-pinching mood and the Tea Party was largely created on a mandate of lower taxes and less government. Given that we spend more on schools than anything else, one assumes the demonstrators with the funny hats and posters of Obama as Hitler must be targeting that category of “government” spending proportionally.

In fact, I can’t take credit for this innovative budget solution. The Republican budget study committee proposed $2.5 trillion of cuts to the federal budget over 10 years, sparing major entitlements and the military, meaning that education and transportation are the only big categories left where such massive fat could be trimmed. And I’ll bet they’re counting on bonus savings by cutting education, because we won’t need the dirty diesel school buses anymore, meaning we’ll also save on health care and transportation costs.

OK, some of the savings will be spent on the other apparent priority of the new conservative wave in Congress, oil wars, but that only underscores the point—you no longer need so much as a high school diploma to fight in Iraq. Nor, for that matter, do you need one to risk your life in a coal mine.

Let China waste all the money it makes—selling us soon-to-be landfill fodder cleverly disguised as products we can’t live without, delivered in excessive packaging that actually does require an advanced degree to figure out how to open it—on educating its population. We can have it all—lower taxes, cheap gasoline, less government, and a total disregard for global problems like climate change—if we just eliminate our wasteful spending on education. _____________________
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).