An interested reader posed a tough question this weekend that I wanted to put up for discussion. I’m going to shorten a lengthy email by getting to the point:
“I’m a 31-year old single gal, with a house I just bought and no plans to ever have kids. Why am I paying for other people’s public education through my taxes and impact fees? Do you think that’s fair?”
As a father of a 1-year old, you have no idea how many times public education has crossed my mind lately. I have both serious concerns and encouraging stories, but that’s a topic for another day. Who gets to pay for the public education of our kids; my kid?
The Status Quo
I guess the first question would be–who pays for it now? While I’m sure it varies from area to area, public education seems to be covered mostly by a combination of income taxes, property taxes, and assessments on new development.
Assessments pretty much cover the cost to build or upgrade schools for an increasing student population (a big issue in Florida). That leaves taxes as the primary operating source, which means that just about everyone who pays them is funding education, without discrimination. Kids or no kids, public or private education–you’re paying into the fund.
My question to the reader would be whether she benefited from public education growing up, but of course it would be an unfair one, since just about everything in government is a pay-as-you-go system. That means the money we’re paying in now is being used now, not correlating to something we did or will do at another time.
What’s the Alternative?
The most obvious alternative is to shift the burden of public education to the people who use it–those with kids in the public system.
A per-child tax system would assess families with kids attending public school with a special tax to cover the cost of their education. Whether this is a flat, per-child tax, or a more graduated or income-sensitive system, all of the cost of public education would now be covered by parents with younger kids.
The alternative I’ve shared has a few obvious downsides which I can see, and I’m sure you can spot more.
First, many people would argue that public education is the backbone of a society, necessary for the greater good and to our progress as a nation, and therefore a shared national responsibility.
Secondly, though the total cost of education would be the same, it would now be shared by only a fraction of the people who used to pay into the system, lowering taxes slightly for the many, while jacking them up for those with young kids. Can their budgets afford it?
Finally, a per-child system would shift a lot of the education cost to lower-income families, who currently essentially have their kid’s educations subsidized by higher-income taxpayers. While a more “equal-treatment” kind of system, per-child taxation may prove to be too much for poor families to take on, resulting in families who simply can’t afford to send their kids to school.
And that, my friends, is an interesting fundamental question (and one being discussed in the area of health care now)–is public education a fundamental right or a privilege?
Is There a Middle Ground?
No matter the question, it always seems like a good middle ground could be found with a little work. I’m sort of at a loss here–the case for shifting the burden makes sense on the one hand, but the arguments against it, particularly that of a shared national responsibility, are equally appealing.
What are your thoughts? Does your fellow reader have a point in that it’s unfair for her to pay for my kids to go to school, or is it something she’ll just have to live with? Can you think of, or have you seen, any alternative/hybrid systems in place for funding education?
Photo by moaksey