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Clare Higgins: Investing in better tomorrows

We all know about roads, bridges, water and sewer systems and the telecommunications and power grids. This infrastructure, which we use every day, is the foundation upon which we erect modern society.

That seems a little dramatic, but think about what our lives would be without those systems. We don’t need to look very far; Staten Island or Breezy Point after Superstorm Sandy give us a pretty good idea. When those systems fail, life becomes very hard. People are reduced to figuring out simple survival.

Mostly, we take it for granted. We don’t think about the fact that more than 100 years ago, civic leaders here in Northampton had the foresight to devise a plan for providing water for this community. And that citizens paid to build it, because they knew that the city would need fresh drinking water into the future; or that, in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government paid to build the Coolidge Bridge. Or that 680 farms in Franklin, Hampshire and Berkshire counties were provided with electricity in 1937 by the federal Rural Electrification Administration.

These were all big initiatives that cost big money. They required leadership and an understanding that investments in infrastructure were not only for that moment but for generations to come. We have been the beneficiaries.

And then there is the intangible infrastructure. Our education system is a crucial part of that infrastructure. In 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution required that the Legislature “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns.” Horace Mann, the first chair of the Massachusetts Board of Education, said in 1857, “(T)he beneficent power of education ... has a higher function. Beyond the power of diffusing old wealth, it has the prerogative of creating new. It is a thousand times more lucrative than fraud; and adds a thousandfold more to a nation’s resources than the most successful conquests.”

Education is not only “necessary for the preservation of the rights and liberties” of the citizenry, as stated in the Massachusetts Constitution, it is a critical element of economic vitality.

Massachusetts led the nation in the establishment of free public education just as we lead the nation now in academic achievement. During hard times, states continued to invest in education because “it adds a thousandfold to a nation’s resources.” Even in the depths of the Great Depression, the federal government helped the city of Northampton build a new high school. And legislation enabling the establishment of land grant colleges (like the University of Massachusetts) was first passed in 1862 during the Civil War. Preschool education in the U.S. has its roots in the infant schools in Boston from 1826 to 1840.

Education is the intangible infrastructure of opportunity. For more than 200 years, this state and nation have recognized that a literate and numerate citizenry is crucial to our economic and political health.

There was a line in President Obama’s inaugural speech that speaks to this infrastructure issue. He said, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.”

We have infrastructure, both tangible and intangible, entrusted to us by the citizens and leaders of the last couple hundred years. In their time, they built bridges and roads, water and sewer systems, schools and colleges. In their time they paid the necessary taxes to fund these initiatives with their hard-earned money. They knew they were building for the generations that would succeed them.

Here’s a grim passage from the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission: “Virtually every transportation agency in the state is running structural deficits and resorting to short-term, quick fixes that hide systemic financial problems. ... The condition of our roads, bridges, and transit systems are all in broad decline. ... Revenue is being squeezed from all sides. ... We have no money for transit or highway enhancements or expansions without further sacrificing our existing systems and exacerbating our problems.”

And more than 30,000 children are on the waiting list for subsidized early care and education programs across the commonwealth. There is a persistent achievement gap for Latino, African-American and low income children; for instance, children eligible for free lunch are six times more likely to be below the basic level in math than those not eligible.

For many of our youth, college is an unachievable dream and work is not to be found. Massachusetts community college costs exceed the national average by 52 percent. Average tuition and fees at public four-year institutions are 30 percent above the national average.

The governor has proposed a balanced set of tax increases and decreases that would raise enough money to attack our infrastructure problems, both tangible and intangible. The plan would fund our transportation and our preschool through college education system to meet today’s challenges.

We are required to act in our time.

Clare Higgins of Northampton, the city’s former mayor, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action! of the Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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