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We Have to Find a More Progressive Way to Fund Education

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One of my pet peeves is deregulation. When you hear the word "deregulation," how does it make you feel? This is one of those Rorschach test kinds of words: for a lot of people deregulation means getting "big government" out of peoples' daily lives. It means removing red tape. It means using competition in marketplaces to ensure that people get the best quality goods for the lowest possible prices. Deregulation is shorthand for efficiency to a lot of people.

That's not what it means to me.

To me, deregulation has another meaning. Yesterday morning I put my kindergartener on the bus to go to school by herself since her older brother is under the weather. But when the bus pulled up something was off; actually everything was off. I didn't recognize the driver. The bus didn't arrive at the time it normally would. It crawled slowly to our stop, probably because the driver was new and didn't know exactly where our stop was.

That wasn't all. You know how on the side of the school bus normally you see the name of the school district? This bus, instead of having the name of our district emblazoned on the side, said "E&B Transportation." Maybe only a subtle peace of mind is provided when the same person picks up your five year old every day, and the district's name is on the side, and the bus doesn't look like it had been retired but then got purchased by some company called "E&B Transportation" that was hoping to enter a "new market" to make some money transporting kids to and from school on the cheap. But I like having that peace of mind. I also can't let go of the idea that you get what you pay for.

I've complained about this before: the only reason E&B Transportation is picking up my kids in the morning is because the local school district is looking for ways to save money, and cutting costs around transportation is one way to do that. That's pretty understandable in Pennsylvania these days, but the problem goes back a lot further than the current budget crisis. We have no budget here in Pennsylvania because the people responsible for appropriating state funds to pay for things like education think we can spend money without raising money; some of them no doubt would prefer not to spend any money at all. They think we can dig our way out of a decades-old school funding problem, and a related pension-funding crisis for public employees, by cutting services (or buying them more cheaply) without generating new revenue. Not least of all from the oil and gas companies who want to extract their product from the ground under Pennsylvania. We wouldn't want that. Then the companies might go and discover another massive shale formation under some other state with better politicians and take all their jobs there.

But this isn't a problem only in Pennsylvania. For the better part of thirty years we've been sold the argument that any time anybody's taxes go up, everybody's taxes go up. We've been told that high taxes kill jobs, and that low taxes create them. We've been led to believe that the government's problem is not only that it takes too much of our money but that it spends that money recklessly, effectively transferring the hard-earned money of middle class Americans to poor people who are too lazy to earn it themselves.

None of this is true. If you don't believe me, look at your local school system: over there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of adults who depend for their livelihoods on the tax dollars collected by our local, state, and federal governments. These are people who spend what they have mostly on things they need—on mortgages, car payments, food, clothing, entertainment—and in fact probably spend upwards of 90% of their paychecks each month. Most of them probably live in your community too, which means they spend much of that money right where you live. That makes your life better.¬†

In a very real sense, if you and your neighbors refuse to pay your fair share of taxes—the price of civilization, as the old saying goes—you're only shooting yourself in the foot. Adequate funding doesn't make a school a good school all by itself, but it's almost always a pre-requisite. When you invest in your schools you make an investment in your larger community. That pays other dividends down the line: better schools attract better teachers to work in them, they drive up property values, they create a local workforce that wants to stay in town and spend its money—your money—right where both of you live. The smaller and more isolated a place is, and the less diversified its economy, the more important this kind of spending becomes.

But this isn't our responsibility, as local taxpayers, alone. One of the unfortunate side effects of "starving the beast," as a famous anti-tax activist likes to put it, is that it has become a reflexive ideology—even people who are being¬†hurt by declining government revenues sometimes still support them. But look around. Are your taxes actually going down where you live? If you're a property owner, probably not. Here in Pennsylvania, a state board essentially gets to add as much as 20% to the value of your house when it assesses it, depending on where you live. I know, because it happened to me. Why do they do that? Because somebody has to pay the bill, that's why.

The reality is that low taxes are sold to us as a cure-all for much larger structural problems in our economy, but in fact lowering taxes or making them more regressive (which are usually one and the same) only make those problems worse. If you had a factory in your town that shut down and moved overseas, defunding your local schools isn't going to do one thing to bring it back. It's also not going to do much to prepare the young people in your community to get the kind of stable work they'll need to find once they leave school, and it's certainly not going to support the people who work in your local school system. In many places the local schools are the largest employer in town, and a gateway to a professional, middle class life—not just for students, but for the people who teach them. Why wouldn't we all want to support that?

Look, I know this is a complicated issue. The state legislature here in Pennsylvania has tried several times to replace the property tax with a combination of higher income and sales taxes, and it always loses—for good reason. Critics on both the right and left realize that it would take a tremendous increase in Pennsylvania's flat income tax (which currently sits at a measly 3.07%) to make up for the much more substantial amount of money generated by manipulating property values and millage rates to fund schools. But part of the problem with these schemes is that they continue to turn to the same sources in search of government income. As top-level marginal tax rates are slashed down below 30% by the federal government, and new forms of "income" (like capital gains) are not treated like regular income, states scramble to fill in the gaps by tapping the same consumers who were already shouldering the burden anyway. It's our friends at the top of the income hierarchy who need to be doing more. Why are we so shy about asking them to?

Clearly we need a more progressive system. As long as politicians have to figure out how to pay for public education they're going to be looking for shortcuts to save money. And as long as that's the case, districts will be looking for cheaper ways to do things that they ought to be doing, and doing right, all by themselves. I guess I'll have to get used to sending my daughter to school with a stranger every morning. I don't even want to know what they're serving for lunch.

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