As state governmentâ€™s finances collapsed this week, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said the mood of the House Democratic majority caucus was approaching â€śdepression.â€ť But what took them so long? The performance of state government has depressed the public for some years now.
â€śThis budget crisis,â€ť Aresimowicz added, threatens â€śto undo 20 years of policy in a matter of days.â€ť
Connecticut can only hope for as much and more - that the coming undoing identifies the right policies and extends back maybe 50 years rather than a mere 20. But recognition is coming too slowly and only dimly to most legislators, as signified by a comment this week from state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, vice chairwoman of the General Assemblyâ€™s Appropriations Committee.
â€śPeople have to realize that we have a lot of fixed costs in our budget,â€ť Abercrombie said, â€śand the percentage that isnâ€™t fixed falls on the backs of people who are less fortunate.â€ť
But itâ€™s not â€śpeopleâ€ť who should face up to those â€śfixed costsâ€ť but rather legislators themselves, who fixed those costs and who decline to unfix them even as they drive the state toward oblivion. From collective bargaining for state and municipal government employees, to binding arbitration of their union contracts, to their defined-benefit pensions, to the prohibition against reducing local school spending even when student enrollment goes to zero, to the ban on price competition in the sale of alcoholic beverages, through the years practically every special interest has persuaded the legislature to make it illegal to economize for the publicâ€™s benefit. Indeed, the highest aspiration of government in Connecticut long has been only to become a â€śfixed cost,â€ť a cost beyond democracy.
Abercrombieâ€™s comment was only a hapless shrug as she watched state government being eaten alive, with the innocent needy sacrificed to the guilty greedy. She and other legislators have the power to stop it but not the moral and political courage.
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Whence all the messed-up kids? There was even less recognition at this weekâ€™s meeting of the state Board of Education, where members expressed outrage at a report that nearly 1,700 public school students from preschool through second grade had been suspended or expelled in the last school year, though state law restricts suspensions and expulsions to cases of violence, drug dealing, and guns, offenses less common among young children.
â€śI am trying to be calm,â€ť board member Estela Lopez of East Hartford said self-righteously. â€śWe know suspensions are not a learning tool. They are not a pedagogical approach to learning.â€ť
But everybody knows that suspensions and expulsions are not â€ślearning tools.â€ť They are mechanisms of maintaining order in the classroom against the tide of welfare-induced social disintegration and family breakdown that is sweeping over Connecticut and causing even the youngest children to become disturbed and incorrigible.
Purporting to forbid the suspension and expulsion of disturbed and incorrigible kids may make the Lopezes of the education bureaucracy feel righteous but it solves neither the learning environment problem nor the social disintegration problem. It merely transfers the latter problem to schools that donâ€™t have the financial resources to cope with it, their every spare dime quickly commandeered by the teacher unions through binding arbitration or by the â€śspecial educationâ€ť costs of the growing number of messed-up kids.
Besides, even the state Education Department itself is helpless in the face of the problem. Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the board that the department lacks the staff to supervise school suspensions and expulsions, adding that there is no penalty for improper suspensions or expulsions anyway.
Since no one will do anything about the cause of the problem of messed-up kids, why let them impair anyone elseâ€™s education?
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.