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Are We Paying Too Much in Taxes, or Not Enough?

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I've written several times already about the politics of education in my local community, and how they played out in a recent school board election. My sense is that the issues we face here—especially with regard to funding education and ensuring that the needs and interests of students come first, ahead of the needs and interests of others—are issues that people face in a lot of communities around the country.

They came to a head in that election because five people ran together as a group for seats on the school board promising to advance school policies that were simultaneously good for taxpayers and good for students. These five candidates made it clear that they were mad as hell and just weren't going to take it anymore. Their brand of rebellion was a kind that we have all become accustomed to in the age of "Taxpayer Protection Pledges" and reductions in government services: the famous plan concocted by conservatives to starve the beast until we can get it down to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub, as professional activist Grover Norquist once so eloquently put it, is slowly coming to fruition. That bathtub image is a chilling one when you think of our government as something that was created of, by, and for the people, to borrow the words of a somewhat more thoughtful political actor. 

The mastermind behind this group of five was a local developer. The developer wound up spending almost $35,000 of his own money to influence the election, demonstrating once again how private money is being injected into the electoral process in an attempt to decide how our government functions. It's also increasingly being spent to justify even lower taxes for certain groups (somebody still has to pay) and further reductions in government services. The logic of lower taxes—that we're already pushed to the brink in an economy that favors the 1% over everyone else—is twisted by the fact that every additional dollar in tax revenue we refuse to provide to ourselves, or collect from those who have reaped tremendous advantages in this unequal economy, only widens the inequality that makes regular people agitate for lower taxes to begin with.

Let me put that a little differently. The rhetoric of lower taxes has been used to justify putting money back in the pockets of the middle class, but actually it sucks money right out of our pockets by making it more difficult to provide the services we need in order to compete in the economy. The less we pay for education, the more likely it is that those who can pay will begin their adult lives with huge advantages in the college admissions game, on the job market, and in every other area of social life.

In short, it's not that we pay too much in taxes. It's that, together, we don't pay enough. As our investment in public education continues to shrink, so, too, does our hope of ever leveling the proverbial playing field. 

Maybe we could educate our students for less. Maybe. But if we think "starving the beast" will lead to more thoughtful and equitable spending patterns, we're probably wrong. As belts have tightened, states and districts have not doubled down on teaching and learning; instead they have engineered mass layoffs, refused to fill open positions, replaced more experienced teachers with less experienced (and less expensive) ones, and continued to spend money in frivolous ways. 

Let's start with a different assumption: education is not cheap, and the larger the investment you make up front the stronger your return will be later. Some solutions here seem reasonably clear. First, enough with the rhetoric of lower taxes. You get what you pay for, and if we continue to starve our schools of resources we'll continue to get less than we want from them. The fact is that most public schools work on shoestring budgets, partly because of reductions in outlays and partly because what little money there is to spend is often wasted on pet projects paid for by people who have no real clue about what it takes to educate kids in the first place. That's the kind of thing that should outrage taxpayers. School officials have to do a better job of explaining why expenses are necessary, and definitely must do a better job of explaining the benefits of education to wary taxpayers.

It would also be helpful if those taxpayers understood that the schools aren't causing their economic pain—seismic shifts in the larger economy (aided and abetted by the rhetoric of lower taxes!) are. Every middle class taxpayer who jumps on Grover Norquist's bandwagon is only serving as a party to his own destruction. Go out and argue for more, and better, education. Not less.

Next: we need to find a way to remove some of the political baggage from the governance of schools. "Local control" is often invoked as an antidote to the tyranny of top-down "big government" solutions to education problems but, as our local politics here in Gettysburg have shown, the tyranny of ideology is alive and well at the local level too. Now big money has come to school board races. What's to stop any well-heeled activist from packing local government with his cronies to support a specific agenda? How long before a group like ALEC comes along to begin writing policy for local school boards? 

Just because you hold an election doesn't mean that you have democracy. As long as teachers and others with a direct connection to schools continue to be underrepresented on school boards (or banned from running, as is the counterintuitive case for many school employees) our school governance system is going to be marked by inconsistency and political gamesmanship. This is fixable, and we should fix it. We need more people in school governance positions who understand deeply the problems of teaching and learning, not more philanthropists, developers, and low-tax activists. 

Most of all, we need to find a way a more equitable way to fund our schools. Local property taxes exacerbate inequality in ways we should be ashamed of. If we really believe that education is the path to success in life, and a basic human right, we should put more of our money where our mouth is. Access to quality education should rank right up there with access to health care and access to an old-age pension as a basic human right. Taxes, as the old saying goes, are the price we pay to live in a civilized society. We should take steps to protect our youngest citizens just like we have taken them to protect our oldest ones.

None of this will be inexpensive, or easy. Then again, we have the resources to do a lot more than we tell ourselves we can do; if only we shift the burden a little we might be surprised by what we could do. Surely none of this will happen if we keep electing people who claim they're going to lower our taxes first and fix everything else later. When you hear that, you should understand that they're probably talking to somebody else. Even if you do enjoy a lower tax bill after the fact, just remember: that lower bill comes with a price, a price you may not even realize you're paying until it's too late.

An abridged version of this article was recently published in the Patriot-News, a newspaper in Harrisburg, Penn. Reading that version is worth it just for the comments section. Additional context has been reinserted here. 

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