How did it come to this? Someone actually having to start a GoFundMe campaign to keep kids from freezing in Baltimore public schools.
That’s right. Record low temperatures last week forced the city to close all of its schools, but not before burst pipes and broken boilers in some 60 schools left students shivering in classrooms with indoor temperatures barely above freezing.
A parent told NPR about a text from her 16-year-old daughter: “She actually said she couldn’t feel her feet at one point. I texted her back and said are you joking? She says — no.”
After the news broke, a local college student launched a GoFundMe campaignto collect donations for space heaters and outerwear, which has since raised upwards of $80,000. “How can you teach a child in these conditions?” she wrote.
The truth is Baltimore students have long been learning in rough conditions. The city’s schools are so old — 97 percent were built before 1985 — that to fully upgrade them all would cost an estimated $2.8 billion, the size of the city’s entire annual budget. (Yet, at today’s low interest rates for municipal bonds, this would be the perfect time to borrow the money to make that investment.) School closures mean empty stomachs: more than 86 percent of Baltimore’s children rely on free school lunch as their main meal for the day.
As Rachel Cohen pointed out in the Washington Post, while poor kids and students of color are more likely to attend dilapidated schools, they aren’t alone. In nearby Montgomery County, the posh D.C. suburb known for its high-achieving schools, overworked heating systems led to classroom temperatures as low as 49 degrees. In fact, schools in Raleigh, North Carolina, Lowell, Massachusetts, and Charleston, West Virginia, also closed during last week’s “bomb cyclone” due to building issues.
Aging public school buildings are a national epidemic. On average, our schools are 45 years old. They need an estimated $145 billion every year to be safe environments for students, according to a 2016 “State of Our Schools” report.
But the epidemic is one of many when it comes to infrastructure. People like to say the country’s roads, bridges, water systems, and other infrastructure are crumbling, but it’s worse than that — they’re spiraling into a black hole of disaster. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ failing grade gets thrown around a lot — they’ve handed out a “persistent D” since 1998 — but just look around. Cuts in maintenance made last year the worst year for delays in the New York City subway since the transit crisis of the 1970s. Did you know Pittsburgh has been suffering through a water crisis with lead levels higher than those found in Flint, Michigan? And that’s to say nothing of what we need built — fewer than half of us can get to a grocery store using public transportation.
So how did it come to this?
Well, in short, America’s allergy to taxes. For decades — at least for as long as I’ve been alive — we’ve been swimming in the thinking that “big government” is to blame for society’s problems. Out of the late 1970s, a story began to be told that taxes, regulations, and social programs must be cut no matter the consequences. That all government does is overtax and overregulate people and make poor people lazy through welfare.
The Republican Party and Fox News have led the charge, yet trickle-down economics has become the norm across government. It’s now so common to scoff at raising revenues (taxes) that we’re afraid to even talk about it. Combine that with increased spending on the military and a sprawling criminal justice system fueled by mass incarceration (fueled by racism), and public budgets at all levels of government are perpetually “tight.”
No wonder the only “solutions” that anyone can ever halfway agree on are those that outsource government responsibilities to the private sector. Privately operated charter schools, “public-private partnerships,” private prisons, and other forms of privatization are all the rage because they are pitched as not requiring higher taxes. In reality, they often don’t save us money, while handing over immense profits and control of our public goods and services to Wall Street and corporations.
Lost in the (lack of) conversation about taxes is deciding who pays more and who pays less. Mention increasing taxes and everyone thinks theirs are going up. There’s little talk about the crucial differences between regressive and progressive taxation, or, God forbid, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. In fact, the loudest voices in the room want to cut those taxes: “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) last year. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
And it soon might get worse. The recently passed Trump-GOP tax cut is a regressive fantasy come true. It lowers taxes on corporations while raising them for millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills. It gives Paul Ryan what he’s always wanted, to gut welfare programs like Medicaid that literally keep poor people from dying. But it also means even less money for all the things we rely on to get to work, drink clean water, and keep our children safe.
As always, Trump is talking otherwise, promising to “rebuild our roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, airports, schools, and hospitals” with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, soon to be unveiled to the public. But, as always, it’s a scam. Combined with his proposed budget, the plan would actually cut federal infrastructure spending, while all but forcing an $800 billion increase in tolls, water bills, parking fees, and state and local taxes. Our state and local governments would have to do more with even less, leaving them to rely on “public-private partnerships,” expensive private financing from Wall Street and global corporations that comes with many strings attached.
When it comes to schools, the federal government has long left the majority of facilities funding to state and local governments, which leaves schools in low-income neighborhoods falling further and further behind their peers. That has to change.
Bottom line: we need to talk about taxes a whole lot more. It’s simple, we need money to pay for the things we value.
Our country is falling apart and inequality is skyrocketing. The answer to both is right in front of us: a progressive tax system that asks more from the rich, Wall Street, and large corporations. They benefit more than anyone from the public goods and services that keep our communities running. Why shouldn’t income from wealth be taxed at a higher rate than income from work? A construction worker toiling in the mud all day shouldn’t pay more in taxes than a hedge fund manager sitting in a Wall Street skyscraper.
America’s schools, roads, transit systems, and other infrastructure need direct federal spending, and lots of it, and we all know who needs to pay up.
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