Democratic Underground

Why Should I Pay For Someone Else's Education?

April 5, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers

Is it unfair to require those who have no children in the public schools to pay school taxes?

The libertarian-right apparently believes that it is. In its 2000 platform, the Libertarian Party proclaimed:

We advocate the complete separation of education and State... We condemn compulsory education laws. We further support immediate reduction of tax support for schools, and removal of the burden of school taxes from those not responsible for the education of children.

Furthermore, Christian fundamentalists are disinclined to send their children to public schools, often preferring to send them to "Christian academies" or to teach them at home. They opt out of public education in order to protect their children from "corruption" through such secular ideas such as evolution, historical geology, or even tolerance of contrary religious beliefs. If they choose to withdraw their children from the public schools, why should the fundamentalists be required to pay school taxes?

Without a doubt, if, as the libertarians propose, "the burden of school taxes" is confined to those "responsible for the education of children" (presumably their own children), the quality of public education will be severely degraded, while at the same time the burden of school costs on families with school-age children will be greatly increased so much so that poor families will be hard-pressed to support the schooling of their children through High School, and middle-class families will find it difficult to afford college education for their children. In short, without broad-based financial support for public education, the education-level of our next generation will decline precipitously.

So if asked why I should pay for the education of other peoples' children, I have a simple and straightforward answer: "Because I prefer to live in the company of educated neighbors, and in a country with educated citizens."

If I were a businessman or an entrepreneur, setting out to establish an innovative and high-tech business enterprise, I would add: "I pay school taxes so that our country might have an educated work-force, without which my enterprise could not possibly succeed."

The nineteenth-century sociologist L. T. Hobhouse put it well when he wrote:

The organizer of industry who thinks he has 'made' himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order - a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation of millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living on roots, berries and vermin. (Via Paul Samuelson, Newsweek, 12/30/74)

Thus Ayn Rand's totally self-made and self directed John Galt type of entrepreneur is a myth. As even Bill Gates must appreciate, there is no Microsoft without the myriad of publicly educated "micro-serfs" on the payroll.

Another reason why I should support public education at all levels from kindergarten through university graduate schools, is that this support is "payback" to all those who paid for my own public education. This payback is quite justly assessed and taxed throughout my lifetime, since the advantages of that public education are with me throughout my life.

But this is a paradoxical sort of payback, since I cannot directly return the favor to my patrons. Those individuals who built and sustained the institutions that I attended, and those teachers whom I encountered in innumerable classrooms, are either dead or in their dotage. My debt is payable to abstractions: to society and civilization. By this I mean payable to those fragile institutions that secure, sustain and enrich the lives of us all: our Constitutional government, our laws, civic peace and tolerance, our common history, our sciences and arts. I pay back those who paid for my education by preserving those institutions and by enhancing the public good.

The public good? The libertarian will have none of it. For, as Ayn Rand once wrote, "there is no such entity as 'the tribe' or 'the public'; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men." (What is Capitalism?, 1965). Accordingly, the libertarian argues, educational institutions exist only to benefit each individual person who is educated, and thus should be paid for only by that individual's family.

This is an absurdity that only a doctrinaire libertarian could believe. For in fact the education of each individual benefits the public at large, and thus should be supported by the public at large.

When I entered the university campuses, first as a student and later as a professor, I found magnificent institutions at my disposal: buildings and grounds, faculties, libraries, and traditions all these supported, refined, added-upon over the decades at great public expense, only a small fraction of which consisted of student tuition and fees. Yet the returns of this public investment to the public are incalculably lavish: scientific advances issuing from university laboratories, the accumulation and integration of knowledge from the many separate disciplines, the public service of the scholars, teachers, engineers, business people, lawyers, doctors, etc. that graduate from these public institutions.

There is no better evidence of the social and economic benefits of public education than the G.I. Bill of Rights (1944) that offered free college education to veterans of World War II. This bill, steadfastly opposed by the Congressional Republicans at the time, was the foundation of the middle class that emerged from that war, and a springboard to the unprecedented economic growth that followed. Thus the GI Bill is regarded by many as the most significant federal legislation of the twentieth century.

Universal support of public education affirms the principle that We the People of the United States are a community, and not, as the libertarian right would have us believe, a mere aggregate of disconnected, self-interested individuals and families, the sum of whose private activity is somehow mysteriously, and without need of planning or management, transformed into the public good.

On the contrary, the fabric of our national community has been woven, to a significant degree, by the public schools as they took in immigrants from numerous nations and transformed them in a single generation into Americans e pluribus unum. They did so by teaching a common language, our national history, and our founding political principles. Of late the teaching of history and civics in the public schools has been downgraded, and we are now paying a terrible price for this neglect as a generation of Americans emerges that is ignorant of their heritage and of their rights, and thus ill prepared and ill-motivated to protect them when threatened.

Public education is now under attack as never before. George Bush promises to leave no child behind and then withdraws funding from the act bearing that name. Karl Rove attacks the teachers' union, The National Education Association (called "a terrorist organization" by former Education Secretary Rod Paige), because of the teachers' traditional support of the Democratic Party. Voucher systems threaten to draw gifted students and students from affluent families out of the public schools, leaving behind the poor and disadvantaged. And "taxpayers' revolts" are starving the schools of essential funding, often despite the wishes of the public.

For example, in my own community, a majority of voters have recently supported two proposals to increase school funding, only to have those proposals defeated by a law that requires a two-thirds majority to increase tax assessments. This law, the so-called Jarvis Initiative of 1979, is believed by many to be the primary cause of the decline of the once-magnificent California public school system, and the University of California, once the undisputed leader in public higher education.

Because we are all continuing beneficiaries of our system of public education, that system deserves universal support - whether or not we happen to have children currently in school. Our very freedom depends upon a flourishing educational establishment, for, as Jefferson correctly observed, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Aims of Education:

In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea, can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website The Crisis Papers.

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