I have a deep and abiding admiration for those who go into public service. It’s a given that they sacrificed much higher pay and far better working conditions to make their communities better places.
I’m talking about people with high degrees of education and specialized training, who had a variety of career options. I’m referring to teachers, firefighters, nurses, police officers and all the lawyers, doctors and managers who chose to work in government roles rather than private practice, to help make their neighborhoods and communities safer places. I also include the janitors, road repair crews, bus drivers, park rangers and lower-paid government workers who toil every day to help in their neighborhoods.
When on earth did these people become the enemy? It’s outrageous.
Wall Street imploded, and yet top executives there continue to rake in bonuses with so many zeroes that two or three of those bonuses could solve some state deficits. The financial industry doled out high-risk, mortgage-backed securities that collapsed when the housing bubble burst. These people still get their full pay, their full benefits and mind-boggling bonuses.
In defending those bonuses, some have said that they are contractual obligations and must be paid. These same commentators turn around and deny contract obligations to public employees, each making the tiniest fraction of the Wall Street salaries. Plus, public employees work toward the common good and add benefit to our society. Wall Street moguls nearly destroyed our economy for the sake of lining their own pockets and those of their colleagues. Where is the outrage over that? Where is the shared sacrifice?
When did the world go topsy-turvy to make the working person, and particularly public servants, the target of scorn? Those crafting that fiction must be chortling over those of us gullible enough to buy the line of argument.
Take teachers. In many countries, teachers are revered and compensated highly. It is not a coincidence that those countries tend to have the highest-achieving students. Some say teachers have it made in our country because they only work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nonsense. Teachers work till late hours, over weekends, holidays and summers crafting more relevant lesson plans, refining their professional abilities, evaluating student work and gathering materials.
Or take firefighters. After 9/11 and after the multiple fires here in Santa Barbara, our first responders were lionized, and appropriately so, for the heroic and brave work they do to keep us all safe, especially in disasters. Yet recent letters to the editor in local publications point to firefighters and other public safety workers as a huge problem. What happened in such a short time to spin common sense on its head?
Critics point to short hours or short careers for public servants, but the premise itself rings hollow because we all know that our star athletes often have the shortest of seasons and work days, and are among the highest paid. The same goes for our movie and TV stars. People want to include the preparation time for athletes and entertainers, but not for teachers or first responders. I do not begrudge these celebrities their money. I just say shame on those who turn around and disparage teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers and all those whose work is so vital to our community and our nation, who struggle to get by on their full-time salaries.
Without teachers there would be no other professions. Period.
Are there areas that need reform in the public sector? Absolutely. Just as there are in the private sector. Let’s make those needed reforms while remembering who the true heroes are among us.
Why have these hard-working, sacrificing public employees become the target of scorn? Why indeed. Who gains from pointing the finger at teachers, nurses and first responders? It seems clear to me that the agenda has nothing to do with the details being argued and everything to do with dismantling public institutions. If that’s what we want to do, let’s have the courage to say so — and then figure out who will teach our children, tend to the sick, keep our streets safe and fight our fires.
Shame on all of us who scapegoat the true heroes in our midst, or remain silent while others do so. They say this country is angry. Let’s get angry about that.
— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.