Coastal Voices: If we treat kids like crops, then we’ll pay for schools

By Donald McArthur May 03, 2011 05:08 pm

I serve on the local School Board.  At one of our recent meetings, it seemed like 150 young people attended, all asking the board to spare their particular program, whether it was music or art or AVID or athletics. All good programs, and nothing anyone in the district or on the board wants to cut.  

As the kids were talking I found myself thinking of the Facebook revolutions which brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. My thought was that if young people were able to bring down two dictators in the Middle East, why couldn’t we bring some Facebook pressure to bear on a few Republican legislators (two in the House, two in the Senate) to get them to vote to allow Californians to vote to extend some revenue sources we are already paying? 

So I explained to the kids that while $29 billion is a lot of money, it’s only 1.5 percent of California’s GDP.  Since the governor was proposing to split the solution between cuts and revenue, that would really mean just three-quarters of 1 percent of GDP. That’s less than a penny on the dollar to keep schools going. How hard could it be to persuade a few Republicans that kids and schools are worth it?

Pretty hard it turns out. In fact, it didn’t happen. And what promised to be a grim budget turned gruesome.

It’s not that people — including Republicans — don’t understand that education is important.  As The Daily Triplicate reported, the Chamber of Commerce here recently sponsored an Economic Development Forum  that featured education as a driver for our economy. It seems obvious to me that the one thing we need to do and can do to ensure our future — including our economic future — is educate our young. They are the people, after all, who are going to be paying the taxes which will support us long after we have left the work force.

Americans have understood the importance of education for generations. Until recently, it seems.  Now it is somehow OK that California is 49th or 50th in per capita support for K-12 education. And that what was once the finest university system in the world is not affordable for many Californians. When I was a youth it was nearly free. This is a race to the bottom we cannot afford.  

Anyway, I digress. At the economic summit I was approached by someone who had heard me try to rally the kids to mount a defense of their education. That person told me about the visit of state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, and the Tea Party-sponsored town hall he was holding.  I saw The Triplicate story — the one where Senator LaMalfa was asking, “What should I do?”

I thought I could offer a few suggestions. So I went. The town hall was pretty scripted up until near the end and I never got a chance to ask my question. But I heard Sen. LaMalfa say several times that Sacramento and Washington needed to cut their budgets, needed to get their acts together, needed to not always be asking people for money. It was clear that, at least at a Tea Party function, the good senator was not going to be supporting what kids and schools need.

I was taken aback a bit, but not really surprised, because I had done some poking around before the meeting. I wanted to understand what might be persuasive to the senator. And what I discovered is this:  His Wikipedia page says that Senator LaMalfa is a rice farmer doing business as DSL LaMalfa Family Partnership.   A Federal Crop Support database lists that business as having received $4,533,248.34 in Crop Price Supports between the years 1995 and 2009. That’s his business alone.

For comparison, all of Del Norte County received less than $2 million over the same period.  Don’t misunderstand: I am not opposed to crop price supports. I don’t know much about them except that they are controversial because they largely go to the wealthiest farmers. I do admit it eludes me why certain people  need government handouts to support prices for their crops.   (Wasn’t there a politician who told a story about a welfare queen and her Cadillac?  Hmmm).

It’s not as though the good Senator opposes government expenditures on principle. He apparently opposes expenditures that are not to him, which I suppose is a kind of principle.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with Jack O’Connell, our last state superintendent of Public Instruction, when he was in town last fall just before leaving office. I asked him why it was so hard to get schools the resources they need. He paused for a long moment, and then said (I’m paraphrasing):  “It’s the Republicans.  They’re great guys; some of them are my friends.  But I go to meetings with them and we explain what the schools need and they are just unresponsive. They just sit there. And nothing gets accomplished and the meetings end, and they get in their private planes and they fly back to their ranches.”     

But all this got me thinking.  What would happen if we cast the school budget predicament in a language — a metaphor – that the good senator and his Republican friends could relate to?

And hence, a modest proposal:    Let’s pass a bill that declares our children to be crops. I mean, why not? There’s seed involved.   There’s planting the seed. We raise them (crops and kids). There’s watering. Fertilizing. Cultivation. Rain. Sunlight.

And — and this is the beauty part — Crop Price Supports. We would be supporting their future economic value, just like rice or cotton. And graduations could be harvest celebrations!

Ranchers understand this cycle.   Maybe given the budget problems they would agree to pass their own crop support money on to the schools. Just for a while. It might cut into the fuel budgets for their private planes, but aren’t they always telling us we all need to pull together?

We could extend this metaphor, too. Mental health agencies could be like agricultural extension bureaus. That’s tax money going to support farmers, but we could, just for a while, think of the mentally ill as crops that need special conditions. And let’s not get started with corrections as Pest Control. 

Some may object that calling something a different thing doesn’t actually make it that thing. And so it does not. But even Ronald Reagan as governor tried to have ketchup declared a vegetable for the purposes of the school lunch program. So calling a kid a crop has a certain kind of precedent.  

Of course, don’t misunderstand me; in saying that we should rechristen our kids as crops, I am not advocating that we eat our children.

We don’t have to: Our education budgets are already doing that.

We must turn this around.   

Donald McArthur is a member of the Del Norte Unified School District Board and a learning disability specialist at College of the Redwoods.