Dustin Hartley Brand

Jan 22 2012

Property Taxes To Schools: Who Needs Them?

"You know what bothered me?" a friend asked. She went on to declare, "It bothered me that I some of my property taxes went to funding the local school district! Why did I have to pay school taxes when I didn’t even have children in school?"

I (usually) don’t like to set up straw men when constructing an argument, so despite being aghast that she would ask such a question, I was in a way glad that she, a real person, held the issue as a real grievance. Addressing this question of school taxes could fill up a volume, but being the concise writer that I am, I’ll do it in just a few paragraphs. 

Most people (if not all) dislike taxes, but enough of us recognize taxes to be a necessary evil; if people who don’t like to pay them know that they must for at least a few reasons. For one, if you don’t, the central power (i.e, the government) will seek to prosecute you for tax evasion. Everybody who is able to pay taxes must; it’s not an option: it’s the law.

Another reason that people pay taxes, however begrudgingly, is that taxes are instituted to serve the common good. Despite the informal appraisals of some individuals who have lost faith in humanity, people are generally altruistic, social creatures, not dastardly misanthropes. And despite the consensus that government is necessarily evil, governments do serve the governed, at least ostensibly. We call the institutions and structures that this public money goes towards public works.

The third, and perhaps most important reason people pay taxes, is because individuals themselves benefit from doing so. This is tied in with the second point (in the above paragraph). An individual pays taxes, and the taxes go towards building roads, social welfare programs, schools, etc. The individual tax payer uses such public works, so he benefits directly, and being the social animal that he is, he benefits by others’ benefiting. That’s kind of how civilizations work; people help each other out, even if they do so indirectly by pursuing their own apparently selfish interests.

I’ve established that people must pay taxes, as they’ve done for about as long civilizations have existed. Why, then, must people pay taxes from which revenue goes towards public schools? Historically, Americans have had a high valuation of an educated citizenry. Education, we tend to believe, is virtuous for various reasons. Two examples among many that maybe pointed out is that education is correlated with technologies and knowledge that have economic benefits and lead to upward social mobility, and an educated population is presumed to be more informed and interested in participating in democratic processes.

Furthermore, schools serve two apparently paradoxical functions: They get students to think in much the same way as their peers and other community members, preserving a common culture, while simultaneously encouraging independent thinking.

By 1918, every state had instituted compulsory education. Some time later, to ensure (supposedly) high educational standards, accrediting agents were recognized by the Department of Education, with most of the schools being publicly funded. Public schools have to be paid for somehow, so, at least in Iowa, funding comes from property taxes which you must pay if you own property in a school district, even if you have no children in the school district.

Just because the government makes you pay school taxes, that doesn’t mean you ought to. So why should you? I hinted at this above, but you don’t want to be surrounded by ignorant folks, do you? You don’t want the economy to stagnate, do you? You don’t want to spend all your time arguing with idiots, do you? You want to benefit from the achievements of science, don’t you? I could go on and on, but you get the point, don’t you? You should if you received a quality education. Even if you don’t have kids who are being educated at the local school, you benefit from living in an educated community.

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