The Last Word April 2013

As these words are being written, another fiscal cliff looms. The outcome of discussions by the President and legislative leaders is uncertain. We have been here before, more than once. The pattern now seems all too familiar: a new deadline, another cobbled fix delaying more permanent action. The public seems both frustrated and resigned at the same time, disappointed that big decisions seem so hard to make yet not surprised, either.

I have been wondering about that response and why people are not up in arms about the failure of their elected officials to do what they were sent to Washington to do. On one hand, we can ascribe some of this to the fact that people are busy and don’t have the luxury of following the action in the nation’s capital that closely. Political intrigue simply does not matter all that much beyond the Beltway. 

Yet, I think there is more to it than that. Along the way, the language used to describe these recurring fiscal crises actually seems to have exacerbated the public’s inattention. I thought about this recently in one of many meetings I have attended on the subject. Repeatedly, speakers talked about the impact sequestration would have on so many aspects of public life, most particularly on public education. It occurred to me that in this case the noun was as much the problem as are the leaders who seem unable to act. I wondered: Why are we talking about sequestration, anyway?

I am a bit old fashioned, so when I run across an intriguing word, I like to learn exactly what it means. In this case, I went to the Cambridge Dictionary, which defines sequestration as taking “temporary possession of someone's property until they have paid back the money that they owe or until they have obeyed a court order.” I think I may have stared at the definition for a full minute, wondering what in the world that has to do with slashing vital federal funding for schools. Surely, no one is suggesting that school boards owe money to the federal government or have failed to comply with a judicial directive.

Why, and how, sequestration came to be used to describe automatic budget cuts remains a mystery to me, but I am convinced it is serving a very useful purpose for some people. Such a term fosters an inside-baseball aura for the discussion, adding to the lexicon of political commentators and public officials. When one group adopts its own language, others -- the general public, in this case -- effectively are left to try to interpret what is being said. No wonder so many people don’t appear to be very concerned about the continuing brinksmanship in Washington. They have seen it all before and, besides, they probably don’t really know what the debate is about anyway. Sprinkling sentences with “sequestration” doesn’t help.

I grew up in a household that valued education, but my family would throw a proverbial flag whenever an obscure or arcane term was used when a better-known one would work just as well. “That’s a 25-cent word,” someone would say, and the point was made. I can only imagine the reaction if I used “sequestration” to describe budget cuts.

Some in Washington may enjoy this word game, but school boards can’t afford to. We need to be clear: The pending cuts in federal aid to education will have a dramatic impact on students and will hurt most the school districts with the greatest need. We need to be blunt, and we need to be clear. We can leave “sequestration” for a game of Scrabble. 

Thomas J. Gentzel (tgentzel@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA.