In his address to Congress, President Obama introduced us to one of his wife's guests, Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a student from J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, S.C. He presented her as a plucky girl from a hopeless school who took it on herself to write the president and Congress asking for much needed help. "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world," her letter said. "We are not quitters." Ty'Sheoma even had to ask her principal for money for the stamp, so the President said. One report indicated that the principal scanned and emailed the letter to the president, but that is less evocative. A little "casual dishonesty" was in order, perhaps.
This was inspiring political theater. A disadvantaged child writes a letter, a concerned president acts, a delighted America applauds. But this was no random missive plucked from a bulging mailbag. President Obama has been using J.V. Martin as a political prop for several years. It first came to his attention in a 2006 PBS documentary on underfunded rural schools called "Corridor of Shame." He visited JVM on the first day of school in August 2007, saying at the time, "I am not someone who believes that money will solve all these problems. Parents are going to have to parent. We've got to value education throughout the community."
There is no doubt that JVM needs help, but whose fault is that?
The last local referendum on raising property taxes for school construction before Obama's visit had been held in 1976, and had failed 2-1. The bottom line was, according to retired educator Sheila Roberts, as then reported in The State, "The people of Dillon have not been willing to spend the money to do the right thing for those children." But recently those people of Dillon decided to rectify the situation, passing a $60 million bond referendum in 2007 with 70 percent of the vote to, among other things, fund a new middle school to replace JVM and underwrite needed improvements at other schools. The voters reauthorized this effort in 2008. Private initiatives were also underway. The College Place United Methodist Church of Columbia received an anonymous $10,000 gift to renovate two classrooms at the school. First Citizen's Bank sponsors a monthly book club at JVM. Private citizens subsidize an annual class trip to Washington (perhaps they could have asked JVM graduate and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for a donation). And test scores were up.
This is an encouraging story encapsulating American values - a poor community struggling, people coming together, making progress, volunteering time and money, doing the right thing for their kids. Yes they can.
But the message President Obama chose to convey was, "Let Washington do it." Rather than engage in the morally improving effort of community organizing and sacrifice, just cash the check from Congress. One proud teacher said, "We at JVM are not asking for any handouts, nor have we ever," but that is what they are getting. Rep. Jim Clyburn made special reference to JVM in his speech heralding the passage of the stimulus bill. The school is due for a nice payday for being Mr. Obama's political backdrop. As for other schools around the country, perhaps they will gain, or perhaps not - but every American will pay.
The president said that Ty'Sheoma's words reflected "a generosity, a resilience, a decency, and a determination that perseveres; a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity." But what is on display is not responsibility but irresponsibility. This is the new reality in America, that those with political pull will benefit, those without will not. The centralization of economic and government activity in Washington is moving forward at a breathtaking pace. Connections are replacing competence as a measure of a person's worth. This is the America President Obama and the Democrats in Congress want to create, one in which they will decide who is worthy of public largess, and who will be forced to pay for it. As candidate Obama said last fall, he wants to "spread the wealth around." Our future and posterity will be paying for the president's profligacy, down to Ty'Sheoma's grandchildren and beyond.