This is how Democrats lose elections…
First the context: this weekend, I received an urgent email from my Superintendent regarding the fact that the Oregon legislature is planning to approve a K-12 budget of $7.235 billion. What this means is that our class sizes stay the same (28.5 in elementary, 33 in middle school, and 35 in high school), school districts go back to furlough days and/or cut teaching positions to balance the books, and we have little or no money to invest in technology or infrastructure upgrades for our schools and students.
To put this in context, we have such a short school year that Oregon students already receive a full year less of class time from kindergarten through their senior year of high school compared to the national average. We’re also 49th in class size (six more students per classroom), spend 12% less per student, and have one of the lowest graduation rates in the country.
Now the fact that a $7.235 billion budget (which is actually an increase) would force some school districts to cut days and/or teachers is primarily due to Oregon’s bizarre method of funding government on a biennium—or two year schedule. The rest of the equation lies with a change from ½ day kindergarten to full day kindergarten, an increase in costs of about 4%.
Even so, Oregon Superintendents’ aren’t lying: this budget does not adequately fund our schools, and it’s worth noting in this regard, that K-12 funding levels, as a portion of the state budget, have declined by 5% since 2003-5.
The irony here is that Oregonians just elected a Democratic governor—plus a Democratic Secretary of State as well, who’s now governor (sorry Kitz)—and big Democratic majorities to both houses of the legislature. If rich people and big corporations are the most important supporters of the Republican Party (and they are), then teachers are damned close to that for Democrats. In nearly every state in the nation, teachers’ unions support Democrats unilaterally: with campaign funding, field work, and a sizeable block of votes in each and every election.
So it would be a HUGE mistake for Democrats in Oregon, riding an electoral wave in 2014 (counter to Republican gains almost everywhere else), to turn their backs on their most important supporters. Indeed, one would think we’d see a sizeable increase in the K-12 budget, not only because Democrats need teachers to support them politically, but also because most Oregonians would support the move. And, if Democrats truly are who they say they are: a party that sees education as the backbone of our economy, a party that knows improving education is the single best way to help people break the cycle of poverty, a party that understands schools are integral and unifying institutions in their communities, then maybe they’d increase the K-12 budget just because it’s the right thing to do.
And who knows—there’s still time… maybe they will?
But if Democrats pass the budget that’s currently being proposed, it’ll be a classic lesson in how they lose elections: run on a bunch of campaign promises to make things better for ordinary Americans—including almost every child in the state—and then come up astonishingly short on policy. Maybe it’s because of lobbyists who want other things funded, or because the group we’ve elected would rather play it safe in order to further their political careers, or because they figure ordinary Americans—at least, those who aren’t idiots—have nowhere else to go? After all, if this budget passes, what are teachers going to do: vote for the Republican nihilists who can’t govern and hate teachers? Probably not.
But it’s exactly this kind of calculation, this inability to enact truly good policy in exchange for waffling, unnecessary capitulation, and weasely compromise, that causes Democrats to lose elections down the road, because it prompts the following questions:
Why should I get excited for a party that’s just going to let me down?
Why should I convince people to vote for Democrats if they’re just going to maintain the status quo?
What’s the point of being engaged if time and again, the one party who says they’ll do something for ordinary, hard-working Americans, proves incapable of doing so, even when they have a clear majority in government?
The standard answer is that, even so, we’re choosing the lesser of two evils, and it’s always better—always—to make that choice. Unfortunately, that’s not all that compelling of a reason; it might not even be true. Perhaps, if the lesser of two evils is still too evil, it’s better to allow the greater evil to make a true mess of things in order to bring about a choice that is truly good. In other words, if Democrats aren’t going to make a major effort to improve Oregon’s schools, maybe we’re better off to let Republicans come in and burn them to the ground so that we can start over.
That’s cynical, and when push comes to shove I’m not sure I’d want to live through the consequences of that choice, but that’s the problem. Indeed, this is why a lot of people don’t vote. They don’t see politics or government as solutions to our problems. And that’s just fine with Republicans. The less people vote and participate, the more of an impact big money has on elections, and the more power their crazy base of idiots has to wield at the ballot box. Plus, if you really believe government is worthless and causes more problems than it solves, you don’t actually have to govern: you can just go around and crow and grandstand and lie while making sure your buddies get paid, fleecing taxpayers all the way to the bank, which is exactly what Republicans want out of government.
The problem is, WE NEED GOOD GOVERNMENT. I can’t lower the student loan interest rates my generation is drowning in without good government. We can’t make the tax system more fair without good government. We can’t build infrastructure or take other steps to fix our economy without good government. And surely, we can’t fix our public schools without good government.
It’s up to the Democrats then, not just to be the voice of good government, but to follow it through with action. So I hope the Democrats in the Oregon legislature and the governor’s office remember this when it comes to funding our schools. Because for every teacher who’s cut and for every furlough day that kids aren’t in school, guess who people will blame? Democrats. And it will make them cynical about the possibilities of good government.