Since Barack Obama set it up, and Mitt Romney brought it up, let’s go ahead and put it out there: Does America need more teachers, firefighters, and police? Or, more importantly, who decides and how do they know?
I contend that these decisions are rightly made by state and local officials -- not candidates for federal office on the campaign trail. In fact, there can be no national job creation unless cities, counties, and states attend to education, public safety, and fire protection needs. And they cannot do it alone; America’s future economic vitality depends in part on productive intergovernmental partnerships. Let’s encourage our elected officials at all levels to negotiate the details of those partnerships in light of current fiscal realities. But, let’s not allow the non-deciders to tell us we have to choose between government and business if we want job creation. That’s a false choice. It’s no wonder the economy is stalled.
You’re familiar with the current debate:
Last Friday, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney took a swipe at President Obama: “He wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin, the American people did, it's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
On Saturday, President Obama’s campaign tweeted a response: "The last thing our country needs is to have fewer teachers in our schools." And on and on it went.
What we didn't hear in the ensuing hype was the voice of the people who actually know something about the subject, the ones who sign the paychecks of teachers, firefighters, and police officers. An exception was that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who, coming out of a nasty battle with public employees in his own state, nonetheless spoke the truth on Face the Nation when he said: “ ... firefighters, police officers, and teachers. That's not what I think of when I think of big government.”
If we had heard more from the local and state officials who wrestle with issues of public safety, fire protection, and education every day, we would likely have learned about the unglamorous realities that ground their decisions. Realities like:
How can our nation’s economic engines – our metro areas -- balance the fire safety needs of both big cities with sizeable inventories of aging structures and sprawling burbs that may be served by volunteer fire departments? More firefighters? Better technology? More effective inter-jurisdictional, interoperable agreements?
Companies won’t start up, relocate, or grow in areas where crime rates are high – or where the perception of crime is high. Cities and towns cannot develop jobs or generate tax revenues if they don’t have a stable business base. What is the best deterrent to crime: more police officers? More effective police practices? Better technology-enabled surveillance? Tougher sentencing?
The grandchildren of the Baby Boom generation will stretch the capacity of elementary schools this year. How will school administrators improve outcomes with a growing student population, fewer resources, and intense public scrutiny? Hire more teachers? Phase out under-performing faculty? Transition to on-line learning? Impose competency-based graduation requirements?
Ask any citizen, city council member, or mayor and he or she will tell you that safe neighborhoods, kids in school, and residents earning regular paychecks are the backbone of the community. How can communities decide which of these to sacrifice when federal and state support for these functions is cut or eliminated?
If local and state officials had been asked whether America needs teachers, firefighters, and police, they would have provided some of these details. They probably also would have talked about the tough choices they have had to make in the face of declining tax revenues, state, and federal assistance – choices that compromise economic vitality and quality of life. A survey by the National League of Cities says that 72% of cities cut personnel in 2011; 60% delayed infrastructure projects; and 41% increased service fees.
Local officials could also have highlighted a number of initiatives now underway by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are working together at the state and local levels to grapple with public service needs: Colorado’s “Bottom Up” economic development strategy; Virginia’s transparent budgeting process, Virginia Performs; the 300-city Metropolitan Mayor’s Caucus in the Chicago area; Southwest Michigan’s “Pulse of the Region Survey”; the New England Secondary Schools Consortium .
Does America need more teachers, firefighters, and police? These are the people we should be asking. And the talkers on the campaign trail should be listening.
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