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Policy Post: When There Are No Easy Choices

April 13, 2011

Photo Credit: William Atkins / The George Washington University GW University Photography

After a budget deal was made that will last through September, the Ryan Plan is still being discussed as a long term solution on the Republican side. As a counter, President Obama spoke today offering support for some of the points in the  Debt Commission Report that had been collecting dust previously, but steering clear of entitlements, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Generally, one basic premise of his plan is one dollar in increased tax revenues for every three dollars of spending cuts. Specifically,  his approach differs from the commissions in that his plan will save $3 trillion in 12 years, rather than the commission’s $4 trillion in savings in 10 years. The House Republican plan announced last week proposed $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade.

This comes as a bi-partisan group of Senators known as the “Gang of Six” are announcing a detailed plan to implement some of the Commission’s recommendations.

With all these plans flying around from all sorts of branches of government it’s a bit confusing, but David Brooks puts it best when he called it “a journey.”

The budget commission took us one step toward getting these issues resolved. Obama dropped a ball a bit by not including any of their ideas in his budget and by not even having them in for a photo-op. But the Gang of Six — the senators working to put the commission plan into legislative form — are taking the next step. Ryan brought us another step forward. For once a major party was asking the American people to accept the implications of their choices. If you want low taxes you have to accept a smaller government. Now Obama may take us another step. We’ve got 20 more steps to go. But things are moving.

Things may be moving but there are some difficult questions that will have to get asked.  Special education is an essential part of that. While every speech makes clear that there are no easy choices and there will be debates, we can’t take that for granted. Nothing in a representative democracy is automatic, it takes active citizens to make sure of that.

What does it take to participate? I was asked that when I was in student government at the University of Washington (now 5 years ago, yikes!). We organized our yearly lobby day, where hundreds of students would come down to the state capitol and meet their legislators.  Before jumping on the bus, everyone gathered in the student union for a bit of a “pep rally.”  It was my job to speak to them and share a few points that I hoped they’d remember.  It struck me then to say that they should tell their stories and put a human face on the decisions these leaders made. It was one thing to push a report in front of them or to read a prepared testimony, it was something profoundly more powerful to look them in the eye and share how you personally balanced the cost of text books, lab fees, and tuition. That was something they offered that experts and lobbyists couldn’t come close to providing. This was our distinct advantage.

Now keep in mind the room did not erupt in cheers afterward (we made our way down to the capitol pretty uneventfully) but the thought comes back to me when I read the news today. Every one of us has a perspective to offer our leaders and you don’t have to be an expert to make an impact on what they do. When there are no easy choices, the best thing special education advocates, teachers, parents and students can do is to speak up and share their stories. Whatever your medium, in person, on YouTube, or in a letter, take advantage of your experience and speak personally. It’s a powerful thing.

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