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Luskin: Budget Priorities

02/23/11 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) As Vermonters consider their municipal budgets, commentator Deborah Luskin recalls an old story about how one town made the difficult decision between funding roads - and funding education.

(LUSKIN) I recently heard a Marketplace commentary by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington DC's public schools, who points to Singapore's plan to achieve global financial success by making its education system the best in the world.    
    
Rhee says, "That's the opposite of what we do here in America.  We see education as a social issue, not an economic one.  And what happens to social issues in times of economic hardship? They get swept under the rug."
   
That reminded me of a story by Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, published in 1957.  It's about the town meeting in which Arlington voted to build a new school.
   
As Fisher tells it, Arlington had inadequate schools that had served the town's children well enough when life advanced at a horse-and-buggy pace.  As times changed, many people in Arlington understood that their children's education had to keep pace with the increasing complexity of modern life.
   
Not everyone agreed.  As Fisher notes, the human love for the past and the human dislike for taxes supported the opinion of those who thought that what was good enough for them was good enough for their kids.
   
Those in favor of the new school saw the future as an opportunity to improve upon the past.  But the cost of a new school was breathtaking, as compared, say, to the cost of keeping the roads and bridges in good repair.
   
Fisher says everyone in her town was in favor of education - in theory. But theory couldn't compete with the physical reality of roads that needed resurfacing and bridges that needed to be replaced.
   
The controversy went on year after year.  Those supporting the new school grew dispirited and silent - until finally the town grocer stood up.  Fisher describes him as usually wearing "a white apron standing behind the counter. . . selling sugar and tea."  But that day - he was just another member of the community who had this to say:
   
"We are being told that our town cannot afford to keep its bridges safe and also make a decent provision for its children's education. . . Not one of us here really believes it. We just can't think of anything to say back."  Then he continued, "What kind of town would we rather have fifty years from now - a place where nit-wit folks go back and forth over good bridges? Or a town which  . . . prepares [their children] to hold their own in modern life? If they've had a fair chance, they can build their own bridges.  . . If we have to choose, let the bridges fall down!"
   
Patrick Thompson's speech marked the turning point in the life of the town. They voted for a new school that day.
   
And in the fifty years since the story first appeared, it's been published around the world and widely translated - even, I believe - into Chinese.

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