The best investment for 2010

Tacoma Weekly, January 27, 1010

It is not too late to make a New Year’s resolution: Vote “yes” on the Tacoma school levies that come before us on Feb. 9.

Is this the best investment to make at a time when families are already feeling the pinch of high unemployment, vanishing savings accounts, record home foreclosures and strained credit markets?  Absolutely, and there are three good reasons for it.

The first is practical – the economy itself. The only long-term economic stimulus package we have at our disposal is a good education. The federal stimulus dollars will help us over the hump, but they are only a short-term fix. For the long term, data shows that those who graduate from high school not only earn far more, they also are more likely to be civic leaders, pay property taxes and give back to their community. They are far less likely to commit crime, be unemployed or go on welfare. Passage of the levies will make it more likely that more students will stay in school, get a better education, go to college and contribute to the recovery of a stressed economy.

The second reason is principled – education is the great gift we all owe to the next generation. We often think our greatest debt is to the past, to those that came before us. Indeed, we do owe a great deal to those who built the companies, museums, waterfront, colleges and universities that make Tacoma one of the nation’s great places to live. Those predecessors did all that because they felt an obligation to the future – to us.

We have that same obligation to the next generation. Whatever grand plans we may have for our city, no legacy can be more valuable than a good education. It will not only provide our young people with the greatest possibility of their own economic success, it will provide them with the best chance for a more fulfilling life. It will give them the tools to discover things about themselves, to meet individuals who will shape their lives for the better, to encounter opportunities and attain skills that will change the course of their careers forever.

My third reason is personal. The college over which I preside used to enroll a majority of our students from Stadium High School and Lincoln High School. As we have become a national college, and now attract thousands of families to Tacoma each year from every state and from many nations to consider Puget Sound, the number of local students is much smaller. But they are some of our best.

I remember many of them: Najja, who was president of our Black Student Union and is now in law school; or Jason, who captained our record-breaking basketball team last year and is now a successful businessman; or Jamilia, who is working in public health in Tacoma, after earning her master’s in Philadelphia; or Matt, who earned his bachelor’s in math and is now completing his master’s in teaching with us, soon to join the many Tacoma teachers and principals who have graduated from our School of Education.

These four represent the thousands of young people in Tacoma with dreams of college and a bright future, dreams that depend upon the two school levies before us. Each of those students offers yet another reason to support those levies. The $82 million operations levy is not a new tax: it will replace a similar levy expiring in 2010 and account for more than a fifth of every neighborhood school’s day-to-day budget. If it fails, hundreds of teachers would likely be laid off, and funds for librarians, nurses, teachers’ aides, athletics, arts and textbooks will face deep cuts. The $140 million capital levy will pay for renovations or rebuilding at three aging schools, as well as for badly-needed repairs of roofs and plumbing, safety and security measures, and new technology at schools across the district.

The total cost of both levies for the average Tacoma homeowner in 2011, compared to what was paid in 2009, would be less than $8 extra a month: the cost of a discount CD or a trip to the movies — if you make the matinee.

School levies have failed before in Tacoma (about half the time over the last decade) and we are paying the price for those decisions today. Would a consistent investment in the future by voting in favor of those levies have produced more Jasons and Najjas, more Matts and Jamilias? Very likely. On Feb. 9, we have a chance to prove it.

Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound.