The Education Tax Racket

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So there’s this guy named Ray Simon. He’s director of the Arkansas Department of Education, and he’s got a complaint about the boom in home schooling. The way he sees it, this trend is a threat to our, or at least his, way of life.

"A third of our support for [government] schools comes from property taxes," Ray tells the new issue of Time, which features homeschooling on the cover. Ray goes on: "if a large number of a community’s parents do not fully believe in the school system, it gets more difficult to pass those property taxes. And that directly impacts the schools’ ability to operate."

No surprise there: parents might not want to pay for services they don’t use. But are we to presume the reverse is true? That parents with kids in government schools are more likely to back tax increases? Could be, could be. Certainly kids in school are not taught to be suspicious of the powers-that-be; quite the reverse.

But at least we have here a bracing look into the heart of American public education. The goal is to keep the kids in school so that they and their parents can be taught the merits of the system (the entire government sector) that keeps them there. In other words, it’s a glorified tax scam, just another racket to extract money from the public so that it can be transferred to the pockets of bureaucrats.

No wonder the homeschooling movement — the most momentous educational development of the last few decades and one of the most hopeful signs for the future–is starting to catch on in a big way. This is prompting much grousing from the public-school industry.

Just look at the logic of Ray’s comments. Why do schools need higher and higher taxes in order to have the "ability to operate"? Why can’t they operate on the money they have now? It’s because they are run by the government, which can’t do anything as well as the private sector.

The per-pupil cost of public schools averages $6,000, compared with $3,100 for private schools. In other words, all else being equal, we could abolish all public schools and the taxes that support them tomorrow, let the market replace them with private schools, and cut the total cost of education by nearly half.

Why isn’t this done? The short answer is that there are many people on the payroll of the education bureaucracy who would be unhappy. But wouldn’t teachers also be unhappy? Not necessarily. Consider this conclusion of a 1997 report from the National Center on Education Statistics (yes, this is the government talking):

"Despite poorer pay, private school teachers as a group are more satisfied than public school teachers with their jobs. In the aggregate, private schools seem to offer a greater sense of community, greater teacher autonomy in the classroom, and more local influence over curriculum and important school policies. In addition, on average, private schools have a climate that would appear to be more conducive to learning, including greater safety and fewer problems caused by students having poor attitudes toward learning or negative interactions with teachers. Finally, private school students take more advanced courses than do public high school students. They also appear to follow a more rigorous academic program overall…."

Now, it’s bad enough that the public-school lobby demands twice the amount of money to run schools than the private schools do. But it’s even worse that Ray demands ever more money each year through tax increases.

Imagine if the computer industry said it always needed to raise prices in order to have the "ability to operate." It might like to try, but competition and innovation keep prices falling. In fact, if it weren’t for government-instigated inflation, computers would be much cheaper than they are. And despite falling prices, quality improves every day.

Ray, meanwhile, is thinking only about how to get more money. It seems that a number of tax-limitation measures have passed in Arkansas in recent years. Panicked legislators have been inching up the sales tax to feed government’s voracious appetite, and yet people are starting to catch on to that gimmick too.

Not so with schools. Even where taxes grow and grow, the quality falls. And it’s not only the quality of the education that parents have to worry about these days. They must also be concerned for their kids’ safety.

It’s interesting, for example, to consider that little incident in Jonesboro, Arkansas, three years ago. Two boys tripped the fire alarm at a middle school and went on a bloody rampage. When it was over, a teacher and four girls were dead; 11 more children were wounded.

Does Ray believe that homeschoolers and their anti-tax ways are responsible for that too? Might such violence have something to do with why parents are withdrawing their kids from the schools to educate them at home?

As these things go, the Time article on homeschooling wasn’t terrible, but it was terribly revealing. There’s hardly anything for the Left to complain about. Homeschoolers are diverse, they socialize, they excel academically, and they are sought by top colleges.

In the end, Time only seems to have one complaint against them: "Home schooling may turn out better students, but does it create better citizens?" The question in translation: do home-schooled students care more about supporting a failed government system than anything else? The answer is no. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

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