Arizona voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to raise the sales tax with two-thirds of the revenue going to education. The vote was 64 percent to 36 percent in favor of Proposition 100 that was pushed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.
The three-year tax increase raises the sales tax from 5.6 percent to 6.6 percent and is expected to generate $1 billion a year.
A retired Phoenix-area businessman told the Los Angeles Times that “to take a penny out of every dollar is not a big thing.”
Brewer, who is running for a full term as governor, told supporters, “Doing the right thing almost always means doing the hard thing.”
Doing the wrong thing and perhaps the easy thing of laying off public school teachers and cutting school budgets is the response of most state and local governments to the nationwide fiscal crisis.
Teacher layoffs make headlines somewhere in America seemingly every day. Education news stories about pink slips, cutbacks, program cuts, buyouts, special education cuts and increased classroom size are all too common, a desperate sign that state and local governments are willing to sacrifice a growth engine of economic recovery.
Recent news stories have shown a troubling pattern:
- In California, the Burbank school district will lay off 67 teachers. The Long Beach school district will hand out 243 pink slips, mostly to teachers. The Coachella Valley school district will eliminate 45 support staff positions, let go of 47 teachers and not renew 45 temporary contracts. Palm Springs will cut 36 teachers, eliminate 46 support staff positions and reduce hours of employees.
- In Wisconsin, the Oshkosh school district sent layoff notices to 33 teachers.
- In Oklahoma, Tulsa will lay off 286 teachers (10 percent of its teaching force). The school district laid off earlier 125 administrative and support employees.
- In Iowa, the Des Moines school board distributed 74 teacher layoff notices in April.
- In Illinois, the Democratic-controlled state Senate passed a budget that will result in some 18,000 teachers being laid off.
- In North Carolina, some 500 Charlotte-Mecklenburg educators will be dismissed.
- In Pennsylvania, as many as 3,000 teachers and support positions could be given pink slips.
- In New Jersey, the Newark school district is laying off 469 non-tenured teachers.
- In New York, an estimated 15,000 teachers could lose their jobs.
To avert massive layoffs of teachers – projections that run as high as 300,000 – the Obama administration backs a $23 billion supplemental spending bill offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Harkin’s bill, “Keep Our Educators Working Act 2010,” will be considered in the Senate in the next few weeks. A similar bill has been passed in the House of Representatives.
Not surprisingly, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) opposed the plan to prevent teacher layoffs – one way to protect public education – while stimulating the economy.
From a moral perspective, teacher layoffs and cuts in public education funding move the nation in the wrong direction. They harm a generation of children. Compromised education now means lower paying jobs, greater social stratification and a less educated citizenry in the future. A good education is a vehicle for justice.
By definition, justice is doing the right thing. By experience, justice is almost always doing the hard thing. That’s why social justice is always referred to as “the struggle.” That’s why so many churches evade justice for the easy road of irrelevant religion, of privatized faith severed from the sacred texts – the deep wells of justice.
Speaking up for tax increases for public education is the right and hard thing to do. If the conservative state of Arizona can do it, then other states can do it – no matter how loudly the conservative forces of “no we can’t” yell.
At the forefront of the effort to increase funding for public education ought to be people of faith. And now is the needed time to speak up.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.