Sunday, August 10, 1997
Kids behind jocks, felons

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

We are very big on signals in this country. We wear ribbons of every color to signal our support for good causes. Traffic signals are part of our landscape. We signal with the middle finger of our right hands when we think somebody is too dumb to be driving an automobile.

So what signal, I wonder, did last week's defeat of six school tax issues send? To our kids. To teachers. To the rest of the world. Voters Tuesday said no to levies in Winton Woods, Mount Healthy, Reading, Forest Hills, Carlisle and Hamilton.

The most obvious signal is the one we send every time we vote on school money. We say quite clearly that public education is optional. It's a la carte.

Selective government

We don't vote every time the roads are paved or a new airplane built. We don't vote on the salaries of legislators. We weren't asked to decide whether we wanted new kilts for the sheriff's bagpipers. Nobody asked me if I wanted to spend $112.7 million to remodel Ohio's statehouse.

And we don't demand that people who live in Miami or Austin, Texas, foot the bill for immigration services, even though they probably use them more often than, say, those in Topeka, Kan. do. We don't charge only the people who drive to work on Interstate 75 when we add another lane for them.

We elect public officials to decide these things for us, because we know certain amenities are for the general public good. And we suspect it's human nature to be stingy about paying for something that is mostly used by somebody else. Or something you don't need right away.

''It's unfortunate that you have to build a political machine to raise the money to educate your kid,'' says Brewster Rhoads, a political consultant to the Forest Hills and Hamilton campaigns.

When did we decide that educating children in public schools is not in everybody's best interest? Why is it possible to move into a ''good'' school district?

Why does Kentucky spend more money to educate children than Ohio does? I don't think kids in Kentucky are any harder to teach. I don't think people in Kentucky like their kids better. Do they?

Evaluating priorities

Money won't buy excellence, but as Robert Hancock, treasurer of Hamilton city schools said after the tax levy defeat, ''There will be fewer teachers, fewer janitors, and we will clean the buildings less often than we do now.''

In 1995-1996, Ohio spent $5,749 per student, an increase of 8 percent in six years. Kentucky spent $5,972 per student, an increase of 36 percent over the same period. Ohio spent $14 per pupil on school buildings in 1996. Kentucky spent $88 per pupil. Kentucky has about twice as many computers per student. Only Louisiana and West Virginia have fewer computers for their kids than Ohio.

The U.S. General Accounting Office this year reported Ohio had the second-worst school buildings in the nation, right behind the District of Columbia.

This is kind of embarrassing. Surely it's not good for business. Would you locate your company in a state with a record like Ohio's? Well, you might if you need to borrow some money.

Ohio's Department of Development made, for instance, a $4.3 million loan to Pillsbury at 3 percent interest the same year Cleveland Schools borrowed money at 7 percent. I guess we think dinner rolls are a better investment than children.

I don't have a child who's in school right now, but I'm selfish enough to want to live in a country, in a state, in a city where people are not ignorant and desperate. Or even educated, but badly. I don't want somebody from a mediocre school to be repairing my broken hip or trying to make change at Wal-Mart.

Hamilton County voters said by a rather comfortable margin that they think baseball and football are essential services. And Ohio has nearly tripled its spending on prisons during the past 15 years. Buildings at the slammer in Lucasville are a lot nicer than the buildings at many Cincinnati public schools.

Maybe it's a signal.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.