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Originally published Monday, December 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

If my name were Chrysler, would you give me a bailout?

While we bail out the Big Three U.S. automakers, no one's coming to the rescue of our financially strapped public schools.

Special to The Times

I am going down to Washington, D.C., to ask for a handout. My industry is falling on hard times and needs at least $25 billion to cover basic operating costs — but I assure you the emergency aid isn't just for me and my associates. The truth is, my industry is too big to fail, and if it were to go under it would have disastrous effects for the economy and millions of Americans lives.

No, I am not an executive from one of the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Chrysler, Ford) — I teach social studies to 13-year-olds and the public schools are my "industry."

And if "letting GM go is a terrible idea" — as General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner recently warned Congress in his plea for a bailout of his failing company — then letting our schools fail in the wake of free-falling state budgets would be catastrophic.

The vast majority of school funds come from state budgets and already more than half the states have cut spending or used reserves, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The downturn in the housing market has led to a drop in state revenue from sales taxes associated with construction materials and other goods. Economists are now certain that local revenues will drop over the next few years as real estate-values decline, generating less in local property taxes for school budgets.

In Seattle, where I teach, there is a projected school budget shortfall for the coming year of at least $24 million — an amount that could grow significantly in the face of the recently announced $5.7 billion Washington State budget deficit. The ailing economy has prompted Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson to propose the second round of school closures in the past few years.

But the bitter reality is that the closing of schools will only save a couple of million dollars — nowhere near the tens of millions of dollars we need — and will only serve to create turmoil for the many communities that will lose their neighborhood school.

The argument for letting kids cut to the front of the funding line — ahead of bankers and auto-industry executives — is clear: Kids are more valuable than Cadillacs.

While spinning rims and glossy chrome on an Escalade embody the image of wealth, America's pupils are far more valuable. Allowing our schools to be defunded state-by-state would have a catastrophic effect on our economy and our society.

According to Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy organization, if the nation's students who dropped out of the class of 2008 had graduated, the U.S. economy would have benefited from an additional $319 billion in income over the course of their lives.

As the Alliance further explains, "In addition to earning higher wages, which results in attendant benefits to local, state and national economic conditions, high-school graduates live longer, are less likely to be teen parents, and are more likely to raise healthier, better-educated children."

"The children are the future" should be clichéd common sense — but with a free-market system enslaved to short-term balance ledgers, we have seen immediate gain outweigh any planning for tomorrow.

GM, Chrysler and Ford, for example, resisted the pressure to make cars with higher standards on fuel efficiency and continued producing flashy SUVs and pickup trucks that were so profitable in the 1990s.

Now that lack of foresight has thrust American auto manufacturers into crisis, they have warmed up to the idea of a government-directed economy — as long as it's directed toward saving their own "backseats."

With the public experiencing bailout fatigue, corporate America is attempting to repackage its image as some kind of militant student leader taking on the powers that be. In a virtual Chevy-Corvette-turns-Stokely-Carmichael, General Motors declared, "Mobilize Now!" on its Web site, GMfactsandfiction.com. "Tell your U.S. Senators and Representatives that support for the U.S. auto industry is in America 's best economic interest."

This appeal to mobilize masses has the shrill tone of a teacher yelling at a disinterested class, given that the Big Three just cut back health-care benefits for some 2 million employees.

If we can keep the funding for the music program, students across America should be taught the old Tom Paxton song that goes:

"I'm changing my name to Chrysler / I am leaving for that great receiving line / When they hand a million grand out / I'll be standing with my hand out / Yes sir, I'll get mine!"

Jesse D. Hagopian is a teacher in the Seattle Public Schools. If you are interested in donating to assist Jesse's travel to Washington, D.C., or to help him get a hearing with Congress to make a pitch for a bailout of the schools, you may contact him at: jdhagopian@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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