Wisdom of our elders? Not so much

"The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom."

--H.L. Mencken

"Aw, Dad, you've done a lot of great things, but you're a very old man, and old people are useless."

--Homer Simpson

If you're wondering why Nevada's public schools are perpetually underfunded, fall short in academic achievement, send a comparatively small percentage of students on to higher education and don't pay starting teachers a competitive wage, blame Bonnie Carrick of North Las Vegas.

Mrs. Carrick wrote a letter to the Review-Journal last week in which she complained about having to pay "school taxes." Mrs. Carrick said she and her husband moved here 13 years ago and live on a "fixed income."

"We are both in our 70s," she wrote. "We paid taxes all our married lives -- school taxes being the largest of all taxes. So I figured we paid school taxes for other people's children and then our own children. Yet, at our age, we are still paying the school taxes of everyone else's children again -- and it is again the largest part of our tax bill."

Sadly, Carrick's viewpoint is pervasive among Southern Nevada retirees, many of whom are so self-centered and narrow-minded that they can't see, or refuse to acknowledge, the vast benefits of a good education system, not only for the city, state and nation, but for their own well-being.

But how is it possible that a good many of our wise elders don't understand this, or have forgotten it? How can we respect these seasoned citizens when they are so shockingly wrong on such an important issue?

A more pressing matter, of course, is what can we do about it? This rampant attitude among Nevada seniors is a key reason Gov. Jim Gibbons was elected and is able to get away with his no-tax-increase-for-any-conceivable-reason platform.

Old people have high voter turnout, while us younger folks come up with more excuses -- few of them justified -- to skip elections. This often means that older people dictate the direction of state and local governance, the bulk of which affects younger people more than it does the people doing the directing.

Mrs. Carrick doesn't like paying for the schools. After all, she doesn't get any direct benefit. She raised her kids someplace else and paid taxes there. Now she's retired to sunny Las Vegas and doesn't give a hoot about the more than 300,000 children growing up here. She already did her share of caring when she was younger and now it's Me Time. For Mrs. Carrick and her ilk, the golden years apparently are about eschewing the obligations of citizenship (except, of course, for voting against taxes) and maximizing personal pleasure during their short time left on Earth.

It's understandable, perhaps, but completely short-sighted and irresponsible.

Age, income or influence should not be factors in a person's degree of participation in society. If you're rich, you still should have to pass a test to earn a driver's license. If you're influential, you should be summoned for jury duty like the rest of us. If you're old, you still should share in the burden of funding the public school system.

Furthermore, one would think more senior citizens would appreciate the importance of the public schools to the nation's greater good. With all those years of experience under their belts, they no doubt appreciate young people who have received a good education and are making positive contributions and loathe those who drift through life, commit crimes, beat their kids and suckle the welfare state.

It's amazing what a little quality learnin' can do for a young whippersnapper.

It's also worth noting that the Social Security checks that serve as the foundation of Mrs. Carrick's "fixed income" are the direct result of the Social Security taxes paid by younger workers. And the more educated those younger people are, the more money they tend to earn. And the more money they earn, the more Social Security taxes they pay, and that means steady checks for Mrs. Carrick and her aging cohorts.

Regarding teacher salaries in Nevada, which is the issue that got the venerable Mrs. Carrick all riled up, one might think more seniors would be understanding of the plight of teachers. Most of us fondly remember a teacher or two who had a profound impact on our lives. Decades later, we can recall the teachers' names and the circumstances of our appreciation.

Most likely, we remember these teachers because they were good at their jobs. They were, dare I say it, professionals. They had the education, experience and talent to be great influences in the lives of their students.

Now consider: Those teachers who we remember so fondly almost certainly were not paid a professional wage.

The 2007 Nevada Legislature was a middling one for public education. Handcuffed by the governor's no-taxes vow, the Legislature approved heavily pared-down allocations for empowerment schools and full-day kindergarten. And teachers barely mustered a 2 percent pay raise in the first year of the state budget. A special few will benefit from a pilot program to reward teachers with high-performing students and teachers who work at at-risk schools.

But here's my point: Even if legislators wanted to make a dramatic new commitment to education -- and some of them did -- they were handcuffed by Gibbons' pledge to veto anything resemblng a tax increase.

Jim Gibbons -- elected by the Bonnie Carricks of Nevada.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in October, "Politics, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue: The Las Vegas Years of Howard Hughes." His column appears Sunday.