Editor's note: The following is a letter sent by school reform supporter David Ziffer to “Chicago Matters,” a Chicago-based PBS program (see www.chicagomatters.org), in response to their new “Valuing Education” series which began January 31, 2006.
By David Ziffer
Dear Chicago Matters:
Your series “Valuing Education” certainly caught my attention. Years ago I decided that I wasn't interested in what my local public schools were offering and pulled my kids out. My decision to forego my children's tax-funded benefit had nothing to do with my local schools' funding level. It had everything to do with the fact that my local schools weren't offering what I felt my kids needed, and they weren't going to give me any choice in the matter.
I realize that your initial installment of “Valuing Education” was intended to present a particular viewpoint on education funding, and that you have promised to offer other viewpoints later, but I cannot help but suspect that your entire presentation will be within the context of a default, unquestioned paradigm that does not serve the public well.
The paradigm was pervasive in your first show. Both interviewees and commentators were clearly of the opinion that “equity” is a desirable goal to which we must all certainly aspire. There was no mention of the countervailing notion of “liberty,” as in the liberty of taxpayers to choose the level at which they wish to fund education.
Property taxes were described as a “burden” while the more inescapable proposed state income tax increase was not. And State Senator Dan Cronin, who probably supports our current funding structure, was entirely on the defensive and was making patently stupid statements, like how our schools have suffered under inflation-indexed tax caps because the rate of inflation hasn't been as high as expected (apparently he doesn't grasp either the nature of inflation or the point of inflation indexing).
But perhaps the most dangerous part of your paradigm is the idea that centralized power in the name of “equity” is a good thing, and that such power will undoubtedly act in the public interest. This is the kind of mindset that allows tyrants to rise, and if you believe that our education funding is not to some degree already in the hands of self-serving tyrants, you are mistaken.
So let me try to bend your minds a little bit. Our nation's founders conceived of the United States as a relatively weak federation, hence the names “federal” government and “united states.” They gave little power to the one central government because they understood that it was very dangerous to hand over power to a monopoly. Instead they enumerated a very limited set of central powers (in the Constitution), and left the vast majority of legislative power (specifically, all other powers not described in the Constitution) to the states.
But this merely moved the danger of great legislative power to a lower level of government. How did the founders alleviate that danger? They didn't need to, because the “federation” concept did it for them. No individual state had monopoly power over the U.S. citizenry, because the states were in competition with each other for citizens. If the government of one state became unreasonable in a particular citizen's view, that citizen could simply move to another state without having to leave the country.
When we teach American history we talk much about the division of power into three branches at every government level, but strangely we make little mention of this other important facet of our nation's structure. Competition among states for citizens could well be the greatest factor working against the engine of dictatorial tyranny. If that is so, then our loose “federation” structure is
perhaps the greatest reason why we have not yet succumbed to centralized dictatorship.
In Illinois our reliance on property tax funding is similar. It is designed to give taxpayers a choice. If you don't want to pay a lot of taxes, you can live in a smaller house. If you don't like the taxes or the policy in one community, you can live in another community, so long as you can afford it. If you have kids and you think that money is very important in determining education quality, you can move to a community that has a big property tax bill and play a big part in paying that money. If not, you can move to a less taxing neighborhood.
Unfortunately there are lots of people who want to take that choice away. The public school administration and the teachers and their unions are always in the mood for more money no matter how much we already spend. They're so excited about this that they hire lobbyists to sit through every minute of every Illinois legislative session, and otherwise hound our Illinois legislators until they get whatever they want, which is plenty.
Their objective in shifting our funding formula is simple: to get more money more easily. Today, schools have to hold referenda to significantly increase their funding, and increasingly those referenda are failing. The taxed population in each district is getting tired of the perpetual real (not inflationary) increases and is finally placing a limit on what fraction of its real income it wishes to spend on education.
The public schools and their associates don't like this. They want an unending stream of funding increases, with or without the consent of the taxpayers, preferably without. They are pushing for centralized state funding so that they can get more money by twisting the arms of a few legislators rather than mounting local referenda that are increasingly doomed to failure. In short, they want to subvert the local democratic process and replace it with a central and less democratic process.
In so doing they seek to limit our choices as Illinois citizens. They want to make education funding less of a user fee and more of a universal tax. They want to make it impossible for taxpayers to escape their ever-increasing funding demands by simply moving to a different community or a smaller house. And if you listen to their proclamations for awhile, you'll realize that their ultimate goal is to make it impossible for all U.S. citizens to have any choices in their own personal levels of school tax funding. Without leaving the country, that is.
I find it quite amazing that in a short 230 years we have forgotten our nation's founding principles. “Taxation without representation” was the basis of the American Revolution. Liberty was our most important value. And the freedom to choose our own personal economic destinies has been the engine of our prosperity ever since.
I am hoping that an alternate set of liberty-based values will find some place in your future presentations on this subject.
David Ziffer lives in Batavia, Illinois.