Our patio-furniture tax cut

While recent polls have found that a majority of Americans favor our soon-to-arrive tax-cut refund, it wasn't a high priority for most. These same polls make it clear that most people don't believe the tax cut will add much sparkle to the economy.

Personally, I think of it as the "patio-furniture tax cut." We'll be getting just enough money to plunk down for a plexiglass-topped table and chair set, with umbrella, at one of those ever-so-pleasant national home-store chains. I'm not making this up. Newspaper interviews have found that this is just the kind of product - a fresh-from-the-factory durable good - that many Americans have in mind for their refund checks.

I will be repainting my slightly rusted wrought-iron patio table and chairs in a rich shade of lavender. That way, when the IRS mails out its $40 billion in refunds, I can send the money where it belongs. Remember those formerly lovely public places - libraries, schools, parks, pools - to which we Americans were once accustomed? We've been paying taxes to support them, but over the past few decades not enough money has managed to trickle down and nourish them.

To be more precise, I am going to use my tax-cut refund money to make donations (tax deductible) to my local parent-teacher association and to "friends" groups fighting to fill the gaps in other public places. In this small but focused way, I hope to help support our public resources. Let's say 100 to 200 families at a public school donate half of their tax cut - on average about $300 - to the PTA. With $30,000 to $60,000 to spend on special projects, the parents can really make a difference. They can create a music or theater program, rehab bathrooms, build a science lab, or upgrade the playground.

These kinds of groups are neither glamorous nor high profile, but to my mind they have become the linchpin holding many public institutions together.

When I was in public school in the '60s and '70s, my parents and their friends held bake sales and strawberry festivals to buy things like extra library books or a new projector. Today, in an affluent time after two decades of sub-minimum investment in public schools and facilities, parents of children at some public schools - often the most successful - are heroically struggling to pay for the basics.

We raise money to fix water fountains, replace boilers, improve playgrounds, and buy playground equipment. Here in the District of Columbia, some parent groups even hire extra teachers to reduce class size and provide children with the opportunity to go beyond the standard curriculum and study art, languages, computers, science, or music. I'm thinking of putting some of my check toward a private endowment that will help my son's public school weather future budget cuts.

This decline in public institutions is not just an urban phenomenon. It's happening in some suburban and rural areas as well. And it's not just the schools. When I was growing up, the public pool, tennis courts, library, and park weren't always as nice as their private counterparts, but they were good enough.

Today, many of these same public resources - especially those in urban areas - have atrophied from years of neglect. In the early '90s, I swam every day at a D.C. public pool that had clogged toilets, unusable showers, and unsafe pool water; the changing room was infested with cockroaches and other vermin. It was so bad that I co-founded a "friends" group just to ensure that the pool and locker rooms were maintained at a basic level. We raised money to pay for repairs, utilities, and staff.

Sometimes waves of anger wash over me. I want to be thinking about the supplemental and creative things I can bring to a school - an outstanding musical- instrument program, a state-of-the-art curriculum, or essential community-building events. I'd like more time to help schools and groups in my city's lower-income neighborhoods, where the needs are so much greater.

And I'd rather see donations like this than the advertising money from Coca Cola and Pepsi that some school districts accept - and which fosters questionable habits that our children will pay for in the future.

The tax-cut donation is one practical, temporary response to short-sighted, irresponsible policy. The next step is to elect leaders who do more than pay lip service to our essential public places and believe they should be effective monuments of our civilization. But why wait for next year's elections to begin to make a difference? Let's tell them right now that we place our public institutions before patio furniture.

Nadine Epstein is a writer and artist. Her latest book is 'Rainforest Home Remedies' (HarperSan Francisco, 2001).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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