Ever since the financial crisis hit the (western) world, we’ve been told that budget cuts have to be made. But how necessary are all these budget cuts that we are supposed to be making due to the crisis exactly, and more importantly how are the choices of where to make these cuts being decided upon? Aren’t these often political choices instead of financial ones? Here in Europe the crisis seems to be partly abused for pushing through a neo-conservative agenda. In South Europe for instance countries are forced by the IMF and the European Central Bank to sell public services like water companies into private hands. Especially in those areas, some of which grow more arid by the year, this could prove to be very awkward. In my own country, the Netherlands, severe budget cuts have been made on social security, healthcare, welfare (people are even being made to work for their welfare as of this year) but on the other side billions are being spent on the new F-35 jetfighter, of which it is questionable of how much use it will be to us.

A more specific, local, but no less outrageous example in the USA was brought to my attention recently.

At Flint Schools in Flint, Michigan it has been decided that all its staff will get a pay cut of a whopping 19% this July. This happens after already having had to accept a 7% cut last year. So effectively these people have to deal with a more than a quarter decrease in their salary over two years.

These cuts have to be made, it is said – and maintained until 2018 mind you – to balance the budget of Flint schools which has a deficit of millions of dollars.

“Well surely, these schools should mind their expenses better if their deficit runs into many millions of dollars” you might think as an outsider. Now, I am definitely no insider, I actually don’t live anywhere near Flint or even at the same continent, but my girlfriend does work there.

Thus I know that at Flint Schools space is so scarce that people have to share offices all the time (which will sometimes be located in spaces like the fuse box room or an old washing room near the gym, I am not  kidding) or simple have to do without one every once in a while. I know that my girlfriend has to spend several hundreds of dollars out of her own pocket every year for essential supplies for the therapy she gives there, because the budget the school has available for it is completely insufficient for this. My girlfriend is an employee, mind you, not an independent contracter. So she is an employee who has to pay herself for the necessities of her job. At the schools she works at they do have printers, but frequently no paper. Or toner. That’s why she has printing paper at home although she doesn’t have a printer, one of the things I found myself wondering about one day when I was at her place.

And despite these spartan circumstances the schools still appear to have a multimillion deficit, which they now try to compensate by having their teachers, who already voluntarily are making expenses they never should be having to make, who even will sometimes buy shoes and clothes for their students I am told, accepting a draconic decrease in their income of 26% in two years.

But given the aforementioned spartan conditions, it doesn’t exactly seem to me as if this deficit could have been caused by excessive spending. I’d rather say it must be the result of excessive underfunding.

Myself actually coming from the Netherlands, I can tell you I was flabbergasted when I learned about these circumstances under which my girlfriend has to do her work. I’ve heard of such things only in documentaries about third world countries, I’ll tell you. But the USA isn’t supposed to be one. It is, on the contrary, a country with still one of the highest incomes per capita in the world. How on earth could this happen? Why does a country, or perhaps in this case more specificly the State of Michigan, decide to fund something so essential for any society as its schools so poorly?

It made me think about a confrontation that New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie had several months ago with Melissa Tomlinson, a teacher there, who challenged him at his education policies.

Tomlinson, by the way, describes public schools there being in a condition not unlike those of Flint Schools. Christie is in favor of charter schools because he feels the public schools are doing so badly. Tomlinson claims it’s a scheme of Christie that may very well create a separate class of schools for the more fortunate, because charter schools have more possibilities to decide on who they let in or not. She suggests that public schools are being made to look bad by underfunding them or, by comparing the teachers of these schools with those of other areas based on the results of their students, regardless of the average level of students.
I don’t know if the same  mechanism is at play in Michigan as in New Jersey, but I can’t think of another reason why a state of a still wealthy country would let its public schools down so badly.

And although things are not that bad yet over here in (most parts of) Europe, I think we are definitely headed in the same direction, i.e. sacrificing more and more of all that we’ve built up in terms of social safety nets and government services over the last six decades to privatized companies or the dogma of the benefits  of smaller government.