John Sheirer: Northampton override helps combat national mistakes
NORTHAMPTON — Teachers are often hailed as heroes during times of crisis. News reports praise the teachers who shielded our children in the face of the recent Oklahoma tornado or the Sandy Hook shooting, for example. By the next news cycle, however, the idea of teaching as a noble profession gets blown away faster than the school roof during that tornado.
Without any concept of irony, many in the media cast teachers as “union thugs” holding children hostage for pay raises while blaming teachers’ contracts for crashing the economy.
When government has a chance to help fund education, that funding often comes at the cost of teachers’ dignity and value. The 2009 American Recovery Act (known as the stimulus) was inaccurately labeled a failure or a giveaway to liberal teacher unions instead of what it actually was — government action that saved millions of jobs, many of them in education.
When President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act in 2011, it was criticized as “Stimulus II” and blocked by Republicans who ignored the fact that the act would have saved thousands more teachers from layoffs.
In several states, most notably Wisconsin, Republican governors and state legislators have attacked teachers’ collective-bargaining rights, claiming to be simply responding to budget shortfalls while ignoring the fact that corporate tax giveaways often led to those budget problems. Their priorities are clear: teachers are valued less than corporate campaign donors.
Here in Northampton, we might easily blame the misguided scapegoatting of teachers by faraway extremist Republicans and Fox News pundits who snarl and smirk through fact-free accounts of teachers as overpaid and underworked.
Unfortunately, the attacks on education from outside our town have more impact on us than we may think.
The connections are clear. First, the wrong-headed fetish for budget cuts in Washington affects everyone across the country. The last decade proved that wealth doesn’t “trickle down” — but budget cuts do. Less federal funding to states means less state funding to towns, which means less funding available for schools. Second, Republican tax cuts made the budgets even worse, like demanding that your boss cut your pay even as your bills pile up. And third, the economic crash at the end of the Bush administration led to even less tax income for the government, further stressing everyone’s budget.
Our nation is a connected community, not a set of isolated islands. To extend Tip O’Neill, all politics is just as national as local. The right-wing policies embraced in other states affect us here in Northampton, where vast majorities would outvote those policies.
Northampton’s budget gap isn’t the result of overspending, as Fox News might assert. The same budget-slashing trends that affect Florida and Pennsylvania and Kansas and Mississippi hit us as well. When Texas representatives vote for education cuts and tax giveaways for the wealthy, the “Butterfly Effect” causes us to suffer right along with the Texas teachers who get laid off.
Unlike most Texans, however, we can do something about it. On June 25, we can vote yes on the proposed budget override as a reasonable local response to the unreasonable wave of right-wing national politics that have led to a decade of strained local funding. The override will provide funding for a four-year plan that will save the jobs of many Northampton teachers and school staff, those professionals we know as heroes in more than just times of danger and disaster. Their everyday heroics include connecting our children with music and art, providing psychological support and learning enhancement and helping our community’s young people realize their personal and intellectual potential.
The funding would come from a modest increase in property taxes, an option that places the burden primarily on those of us who can most afford it — myself included. I believe what Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” I chose to own a home in Northampton because this is a civilized place, and I can prioritize my own family budget to help preserve the local civilization that makes Northampton a great place to live.
Unfortunately, given the regressive and counterproductive Republican policies enacted across the nation, no solution is perfect. But the override isn’t a stopgap measure like the self-inflicted crisis governing practiced by Congressional Republicans. It’s a responsible, long-term plan meant to avoid more crises in the future.
One of the most important aspects of this town is also one of the best qualities in our national character: We value education. Unfortunately, in some parts of the United States, extremist politicians who pay lip service to the concept of education have forgotten to value actual educators. Here in Northampton, we have an opportunity to support education in concept and in reality. We can vote yes on the override June 25.
John Sheirer of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at