Building Schools with Straw Bricks


Click to hear Carlin on the 10 Commandments

The Christmas season always puts me into a movie watching mood. Our family has some standard favorites: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and that contemporary classic, Die Hard. Actually, we watch all these but Vacation is our only true family favorite. The others we tolerate. Here of late, though, I’ve been thinking a little bit about a movie that really pops up more often at Easter.

My favorite scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Ten Commandments is right after Moses’ staff transforms and swallows Pharaoh’s snakes. Moses is all puffed up and feeling good. And why not. Turning a staff into a snake is way cool, but Yul Brynner, the Pharoah, just laughs at his demand to “set my people free,” and, adding insult to injury, demands the Hebrews start making bricks without straw so he can continue building an empire for his son. A confused Moses later stands at the well, earning the derision of the Hebrews who are forced to build with inferior products yet then get punished when the structure fails. What, Moses seems to think, do I have to do to get some respect around here? I’m guessing he feels like God has thrown him under the bus.

Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh wins in the short term as the demoralized Hebrews virtually abandon Moses. He has, for the time, averted the revolution, saved money, and built his empire. But it’s an empire built on straw bricks and, in the long run, he loses his army and his son dies.

As we head into another legislative session in Texas, I would recommend our governor take a look at this movie over the next few weeks. Our legislators would do well to avoid a pharaohesque mistake as it prepares yet another budget that asks the already depleted schools to build without all the required materials. The consequences might not be so dire and deadly as they are for the pharoah, but the structural damage to our state will surely follow such a foolish budget.

Our legislators share some of Pharaoh’s penchant for illogical proclamations. Each session, I hear at least one state rep. compare the state budget to a family budget. While it certainly sounds politically clever, this is really comparing apples to oranges and creating a false analogy. There are no tax loop holes in my family budget for the richest members of the household, and we do not hold yearly elections to vote people into office. If we did, I’m sure I would have been voted out of fatherhood by my kids a long time ago. We don’t have revenue enhancement in our house, and the only lobbyist gifts I get come with a smile and a hug. (Or whining and tears, depending on who is asking.) There is, of course, some measure of debate within the house about how to distribute income, but we have no conference committees or corporate special interest groups asking for favors each budget session.

Fundamentally, of course, the issue is not just the logically flawed comparisons being used to form our state budget. Instead, we are witnessing a state government willing to cut its nose off to spite its face, forcing state agencies to make bricks without straw. No new tax pledges make for great sound bytes, but our representatives should take their show on the road to community colleges and universities to talk to students who will struggle because of cuts in funding. How will Rick Perry justify his no new tax pledge when tuition rates go up 7-15 percent (again) and Texas produces fewer college graduates, impacting our growth potential? In the mid 80s, the state of Texas covered 75% of the cost of higher education. Today, the state covers less than 30%. Gee. I wonder why tuition went up?

The traditional role of government assumes that each of us has a vested interest in paying for services that benefit all of us: education, public safety, indigent care, road ways, environmental safety, growth management, etc. Texas tax codes certainly are not simple, but the math is—the more people who contribute to the cost of a program, the less each person must pay. If we reduce the number of people paying, the direct cost to each person in the smaller pool increases. If we remove those services from the state’s responsibility, each local community will, by necessity, either cut services or increase the cost to its citizens to continue to provide basic needs. Texas already ranks 39th in state and local spending for public health and 45th in health and welfare. Quite simply, there is not much fat to cut from state budgets. Local politicians do not have the luxury of sitting in Austin crunching numbers: the people who suffer from those numbers are your next door neighbors, your libraries, your schools. To maintain our already basic services, we will increase local costs and there will be fewer people paying into the pool.

Yul Brynner got his bricks from the Hebrew slaves, but he never got the glory of building a kingdom for his children. Is Texas ready to head down that same path? The Governor wants to take the straw away from state agencies, but do we want the bricks those agencies will produce?


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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