One of the most important issues facing American taxpayers, voters, and most importantly, our children, is the current condition of public education and its funding. But this issue is also often taboo in otherwise open political discourse.
Election cycles such as the recent federal and state primaries and subsequent general and run-off elections in states like Texas provide an opportunity for informed voters to test the mettle of vote-seeking politicians, concerning their stances on issues such as taxes and education. Many politicians, even in the Republican Party, seem very strong and devoted to truly conservative positions on most any issue but begin to stutter and choke when asked about implementing any bold idea for public education and tax reform. It seems that most taxpayers are beginning to understand what most economic and public education experts have known for years: that true and meaningful reform can only take place when it is applied to both the systems of public education and the tax code.
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Several ideas to improve public schools have been voiced by various U.S. lawmakers, and corresponding legislation has been written. Ideas for greater school choice have been suggested and tried in various states with ultimate success. One bold plan for creating school choice is the implementation of school voucher systems that offer specific individual funding for students and parental school selection within or outside of the public school system. Many charter schools have also realized success in education in environments with minimal state and federal intrusion. Home schooling has also largely proven to be successful, though many governmental barriers remain to discourage this practice. The schools that provide the most teachable situation for the public school systems, though, are private schools. Their success has continually remained untouchable by the poorly regulated and over-funded public school systems of the U.S. This success has often been realized even without the requirement for specific educational degrees and other credentials in their teachers. Private schools practically have universally produced satisfactory educational results without the unnecessary intrusion of federal and state agencies and universal funding, and they utilize about 80% of their funding toward educational purposes. Only about 20% of private school funding is devoted to non-educational purposes. These numbers are generally reversed in public schools. The damage done by teachers’ unions in public education is also not a concern for private schools. These unions, such as the National Education Association, routinely reward teachers, regardless of their performance.
Public School reform organizations such as Students First have played a positive key role in returning commonsense tactics into public schools. They have brought a variety of additional ideas to the table that they have tirelessly promoted and have often seen them through to new legislation and implementation. Students First outlines a three-point plan for public school improvement: Elevate Teaching, Empower Parents, and Spend Wisely. This organization calls for the elevation of teaching by such methods as the evaluation of school principals, increased pay for effective teachers, staffing decisions based on teachers’ impact, and the elimination of teacher tenure. Their plan for parental empowerment includes greater school choice, parental access to useful data, and the requirement of parental consent for their children to be placed in the classrooms of teachers who have been assessed as ineffective. The organization’s plan for wise spending promotes governance structures that put students’ interests first, school budgets that are shared with the public, the primary utilization of resources to maximize learning, and the creation of responsible pension and benefit programs. Each of these areas of concern has also been addressed further by such organizations, with specific point by point methods of reform.
Ad Valorem or property taxes exist as arguably the most unfair of all taxation methods and are often levied as the states’ highest taxes in their respective tax codes. This sort of taxation is the method by which most of our public schools receive the majority of their funding. These taxes are first unfair by their very nature. They are based on the assessed “value” of one’s personal property, which ensures that one will never really own their own property. This system was obviously first introduced because property remains as a constant source of taxation. Property ownership may change hands many times, but the property will still remain as a tax base. Local tax agencies have shown that they may assess any value they wish upon personal property, often doubling or tripling the taxation on a single property within as little as a two-year period. Try reselling your 20-year-old property in this economy at its taxable value! Apparently, no one told the real estate community that your old crumbling home is worth more every year. Ad Valorem taxes are also unfair in that they are very unevenly applied. Tax exemptions are often given to property owners who most poorly utilize their property and whose property’s real value is greater, while other property owners are left to take up the slack. Also, little thought is given to the fact that many who have no children currently in public schools often pay the most taxes. Some state officials and other public figures have suggested that property taxes be eliminated altogether, but at the very least, they should be applied more fairly and evenly.
In the state of Texas, among others, we have placed new blood into Congress with high hopes that they will work to apply bold ideas and new methods toward the many important issues we care about, such as public education. We can now only encourage them and hope that they will strive to represent the grassroots from which they have sprung, just as they have pledged to do. We must be careful, though, to not blindly trust them to single-handedly do this. It’s true that there have been establishment politicians who have seen a decline in results with an unchanged system on their watch, but at one time, many of these politicians were fiery new leaders with bold ideas. Without the support of fellow leaders and various levels of government, though, these ideas will remain as only ideas. We must hold our new leaders accountable, but only so much so as we also hold every other public official and governmental agency. As an observer of the mudslinging-rich congressional elections in Texas, one could see many facts distorted and unfairly isolated from the complete picture of given situations. Of course, this is nothing new, especially for Texas. Personally, I don’t mind the use of negative campaigning when it is well-done, factual, and well-placed. I don’t even mind if an office challenger bashes the policies and proposals of the incumbent. But if I might offer some advice to these leaders and other hopefuls in the future: if you’re going to challenge these policies and proposals, such as in the issue of public education, you’d better have some ideas of your own that you are more confident in and that you don’t mind sharing with the rest of us. You can say that you would improve education through “local control,” but if you have no specific plan in place to do so, this just becomes another of many overused and empty terms. Obama himself recently used such a term when he said that we must ensure that public schools are “fully funded.” Such terms seem very open-ended and even dangerous.
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By any interpretation, this country’s system of public education is broken with dire need of repair. We should at least be able to see some improvement in the education of our children as public school funding continues to inflate. As this vicious cycle exists, there is little evidence of positive long-term change in public education or its funding. As I previously outlined, there are many ideas out there to choose from. No system is perfect. As has been done before, some may first be best introduced on a small scale, with results being measured upon completion of planned benchmarks. Other proposed new systems may first need some improvement. Some might argue that the voucher system should not include private schools but should simply create competition by holding public schools more accountable to each other. Any plan should not unfairly place private schools into the public schools’ mess. Public school systems would do well to look more like other private industries in their accountability and results. Taxpayers are tired of hearing sob stories and are looking for results. There is plenty of blame to go around, but this is not just a teacher problem or just a local school board or administration problem, but a system problem that runs all the way to the state and federal levels. A Band-Aid will not repair a gushing wound in need of stitches, and continuing to pour more money into the broken system of public education will not repair it either. At any rate, it is likely that any system would be an improvement over the current one, and it seems to be high time to give one a try.