Don’t Insist on Rationality

by Lindy Davies

A local school district has recently become embroiled in a scandal. It has overspent its budget for the year by at least $800,000. They were building a new elementary school… there was a long cold snap last winter… some of the athletic teams did really well and had to commandeer extra buses… pretty soon, you’re talking real money. It was irresponsible — and now, the voters have to decide whether to issue additional bonds, or require cuts. Outrageous. Those people responsible for educating our children went out and overspent — by the amount the United States spends on the Iraq war in 27 seconds!

School funding is a perennially contentious topic. It’s not that anyone wants to deny the kids their textbooks, hockey sticks or library books; it’s just a question of who can most effectively duck the incoming requests for money. My wife is a deeply-engaged School Board member who struggles with budgets. She says, “Look, we can’t let the Federal Government off the hook. They mandate all these programs under “No Child Left Behind”, and then they cut funding for them!” Fair enough. Many agree that NCLB is as politically cynical as it is pedagogically backward. Politically cynical, because it ties Federal funding to standardized-test scores, thereby efficiently leaving behind precisely those poorer and darker children who score lower on the tests. Pedagogically backward, because it creates an incentive to teach to the tests rather than offering children experiences trigger their own desire to learn.

Federal funding shouldn’t be tied to those silly things, but in this day and age, it is. Perhaps we could do without it? My wife looks up, viciously, from her stack of pages of the district’s draconian cuts for the upcoming year. Dream on. We need that Federal money. Bad. We’re willing to subject our kids to batteries of standardized tests to get it.

One reason why school funding is so controversial is that it is a communist plot. Seriously: public school funding is a massive bleeding-heart giveaway from the haves to the have-nots — and not just the poorest ones. My family income is very slightly higher than the state median here in Maine, where the combined levels of gummint spend about $9,300 on every public school student. We have two children in public school, and there ain’t no way we pay an aggregate tax bill of $18.6K; we’d starve if we did. Furthermore, folks like us, who live in a low-density rural district, receive further redistribution in the form of “equalization” funds out of the state budget. Why in the world would any family at my income level ever complain about the property tax they have to pay? If nothing else, it costs way less than day care! I seriously begrudge my Federal liability — but I think the property tax is, all in all, a decent value.

Nevertheless, like so many others, Maine is a “tax revolt” state. Although our voters at least had enough brains to defeat last year’s draconian tax cap referendum, we have decided to compel the State government to provide 55% of all public school funding, which is well above the national average. We’ve decided to rely on an unstable stew of poor funding choices, including state sales and income taxes, sin taxes, gambling revenues and federal grants.

Of course, the superior source of funding for public schools is well known; I don’t even need to point it out to readers here. High-quality public schools actually enhance land values anyway — and the public collection of land rent does nothing whatever to distort the economy, raise prices or discourage business activity. A statewide land value tax would be the perfect revenue source for schools — except for one tiny, wee hiccup: people can’t stand the very thought of it; they would rather have casinos.

It’s clear that logical thinking isn’t going to get us too far in this debate. Perhaps we could gain insight from following Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice to “search our feelings…” Let’s say I’m a lower-middle class homeowner who has never heard of Progress and Poverty, and every month my life seems to get more nasty, brutish and… long. The Federal government is borrowing $800,000 for the Iraq war every 27 seconds, but there isn’t much I can do about that; it’s a burden that will fall on my children (and theirs). I don’t have Eight Hundred Large to blow on anything, and any overruns in my budget have to get covered, or they’ll start coming for my assets. But gol-dangit, there’s one thing I can do: I can go to Town Meeting and scream about the property tax!

We who seek to articulate a vision of the just and prosperous society must realize — alas — how far removed we are from the dog-eat-dog mainstream. Logic is seldom enough to bridge the gap. Perhaps we need to work on a message of hope (even if we feel that there’s little to be hopeful about). The kids we are “educating” in public schools are the ones who are going to have to cope with all the shoved-aside global problems that our generation is hastening to leave them. We can’t address these problems with lottery tickets. We need new thinking about what the community is, what it owns — and how we fulfill our responsibilities to our children.

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