July 1, 2011 at 12:58 PM ET
Regan Benson was furious about the list of fees her local public high school was charging for kids to "just walk in the front door." She was even angrier about where the money was going.
"It's crazy — $18 for a basic English class; $38 for honors English; $150 for each sport; a $60 graduation fee," she said, holding a paper she called the "fee sheet" from her school district. It had nearly 100 items on it and looked every bit like a small-print contract you might get from a credit card company. "I wouldn't mind if I knew the fees were going for what it says here, but I don't believe that."
Benson said she wasn't quite sure how to find out where the money was going and, more important, how to make a stink about it.
Enter "MAD" moms.
Benson recently found her way to Amy Oliver, founder of a Golden, Colo.-based group called MAD, or "Mothers Against Debt." Its stated mission is to get moms worried about the government debt their children will inherit and encourage them to ask questions against government spending in their communities.
"When you talk about a number with 12 zeroes in it, people can't relate," says Oliver. "But when you talk about a bill you're handing to your kids, moms get worried about that. ... No responsible mother would ever let someone rack up a $45,000 bill and hand it to their kids, but that's exactly what we're letting the federal government do to them."
Oliver is a popular conservative morning radio talk show host in the Denver area and works at a Golden-based libertarian think tank, the Independence Institute. MAD was her idea, and it's funded by the libertarian group.
"We're trying to change the paradigm about government debt," she said. "We see this as a child welfare issue, and that's the way to get moms interested in it. I call this fiscal child abuse."
Women often view money different from men, she said. A working mother views higher taxes or lower wages chiefly as a loss of family time — they mean the woman has to work longer hours, leading to more time away from her children.
"This is how you get moms interested in fiscal issues," she said. "We are getting women active because we help it mean something to them."
She compared the exploding federal debt to widespread pollution in the 1950s and 1960s, which was often ignored until environmental reform efforts saw their efforts galvanized by publication of an explosive book called "Silent Spring," which predicted the eradication of bird species due to chemical industry malpractice.
"Back then, people became worried about what kind of world they would leave their children. Well, that's how we feel now. We think this is our 'Silent Spring' moment, only the problem isn't birds, it's dead economic activity," she said. "If we don't get debt under control, our children won't have an economy. There will be no growth. There will be high unemployment. We will keep falling behind."
Fiscal issues have often been trapped in male-dominated conversations, Oliver thinks, and she's trying to bring the conversation "to the kitchen table."
One way to do that is to inspire moms to get more involved in local school spending. While school board budgets and federal spending involve two different pots of money, the core issue is the same, said Oliver. ("K-12 education is where their heart lies," she said.) So MAD has a project called "Citizen Auditors," in which concerned community members learn how to read city budgets and file Freedom of Information requests.
Benson used training from MAD to find out about a $3,000 cell phone bill in her district. She also found out that her school district collects $676,000 in parking permit fees annually.
"The real question is: What are we getting for all this money we're spending?" Benson said. "People are starting to push back."
Moms who question schools boards often find they are met with "intellectual bullies," Oliver said, who scoff at supposedly naive questions posed during school board meetings.
"Well, we see them as obnoxious teenagers who just want to keep reaching into your pocket for money and don't think you have a right to ask what it's for," she said.
Oliver's group, founded in 2009, enjoyed a whiff of national attention last year when Fox News aired a satiric video made by MAD called "Baby Ball and Chain," showing an animated baby shackled by ever-growing government debt. The brief appearance helped the group collect several thousand Facebook fans. Oliver gets requests from moms all around the country now, she said.
"Just the other day I got an e-mail from woman in Maine asking, 'How do I find this stuff out about my school district?'" she said.
To be sure, Oliver's group looks and sounds a lot like the Tea Party. But she says ballooning debt and a mother's concern for her kids' future are non-partisan issues.
"For years, people have been saying the money is for the kids. The spending is for the kids. It's not. That's a lie, and it's a lie moms have bought for years," she said. "The spending is for the people in the system, not for the kids. … We spend more per capita on schools that any other country, and what results do we get?"
Of course, it's one thing to talk about excessive government spending; it's another to actually cut spending. Many of Oliver's acolytes encounter the same frustrating Catch-22 that's been bogging down efforts to shrink spending for years — sure, there's infuriating waste, like excessive cell phone charges, but eliminating those discretionary items rarely amounts to much. At every level of government, the real costs are fixed, through long-term teacher contracts, long-term Social Security promises and so on. These are structural problems that can't be fixed overnight.
"That's why it's important to become involved, to get people interested. And I'm going to say it, to get mom's interested, because men handle money differently than moms do," Oliver said. "That's why we need them in the process."