One way or another

One way or another

‘We can’t afford it’ is not a loophole in our moral obligation to provide children with an education

10/25/2012

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“We can't afford a tax hike,” exhausted parents say when I ask how they will vote on California's Propositions 30 and 38, the two ballot initiatives for public education. As a parent of two elementary-aged students, I understand that feeling of being spent — physically and financially depleted — while trying to raise a middle-class family. But “We can't afford it” is an answer given by tired people.
 
Ironically, we pay for it already. A new fundraiser is planned for every week: raffles, book fairs, carnivals, cake walks, coupon books, e-waste recycling, silent auctions, bake sales, car washes, T-shirts, local restaurant discount nights, candy and cookie dough. We volunteer, organize and then buy from each other over and over again without much net gain. Even the professional fundraisers only give 47 cents of every dollar we spend back to the schools.
 
Last year, I led one of the more than 600 local education foundations in California to raise donations during the now-annual budget crisis. While that effort provided critical funds to preserve our music program and libraries, even these foundations only contribute on average .4 percent of a school district’s budget. For all the volunteer time and effort, we never yield close to what schools actually need.
 
The stakes used to be lower when fundraisers paid for extras like field trips and assemblies. Now parents are asked to raise $1 million and more at some schools, much of it from their own pockets, just to preserve core aspects of quality education, like small class sizes, library books and computer labs.
 
When schools depend on parent-led fundraising for core functions, it is not charity anymore. Fundraising morphs into a constant, draining, disguised tax on parents’ time, goodwill and money. It’s subtly taken in discrete bits of a barbecue here and an activity fee there. The result of nickel and diming each other to pay for education is, well, nickels and dimes. It becomes a backdoor way of privatizing public education by making parents pay more in fundraising while still getting fewer educational services, fueling our frustration with a “broken” education system. We burn out, and those of us who can afford to search for other options do.
 
Taxes are the most efficient way to raise the volume of money schools need. According to the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst's Office, Proposition 30 would raise $6 billion and Proposition 38 would raise $10 billion annually — both vastly more than the proceeds of a wrapping paper sale. 
 
Because both propositions raise the funds through small increases in the state's Personal Income Tax (and Proposition 30 has a .25 percent increase in the sales tax), the tax burden will be spread broadly, not just heaped on parents by default. Proposition 38 is projected to affect 60 percent of state income taxpayers, and everyone will be touched by Proposition 30’s sales tax. Everyone will contribute to something from which everyone benefits.
 
“How much will it cost me?” you ask yourself, when the real question to ask is: “What are we willing to pay for children to get the education our society needs?" Are we willing to pay taxes for technology now or for job training in basic computer skills later? Are we willing to pay for teachable class sizes now or for reading specialists later, when we discover an epidemic of high school students who can't read? 
 
Everyone will pay for our decisions not to fund education one way or another, because when a society chooses not to tax itself, the cost of education doesn’t go away. It just gets deferred.
 
Parents, do your homework and learn about these initiatives. I’ve concluded to vote YES on both of them to ensure that schools get some money, somehow. Even if voters approve both propositions, the state Constitution will only allow one to prevail. Voting for both is a measure of insurance for the schools. 
 
Yes, the increase will hurt, but I’m not willing to let my children — nor yours — pay for mistakes made by grownups and politicians, especially if their payment comes as lost opportunities for a better future. 
 
“We can’t afford it” is not a loophole in our society’s moral obligation to provide children with their right to an education. So skip just one of those weekly fundraisers and use the time you’d spend clipping box tops or hawking candy bars to go vote and participate in the most powerful fundraiser for schools yet — taxes.  

Kim Tso is the former president of the Temple City Schools Foundation and a freelance writer. Her Propositions 30 and 38 Voter Guide for Parents is available at her Web site, kimtso.com.

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