Archive for Sunday, June 15, 2003

Tax could meet local needs

Should Lawrence raise city taxes to help schools?

June 15, 2003


I was tempted to make this about sports. But it's not about sports, not really. Sports have been important in my life; football provided me with a college education, the first in my family. Though it's tempting to extol the virtues of athletic competition, this isn't about sports; it's about public education.

Sports are among the opportunities we give our children through public education. It's no more about sports than about other school activities which ignite the passion to learn. Have you been to Showtime or Encore? Or seen paintings by our fine arts students? Or read student essays and poems? Or witnessed the impact of student councils, student newspapers, debate, model United Nations?

Should Lawrence raise city taxes to help schools?

¢ Pro: Tax could meet local needs¢ Con: Tax for sports not justified¢ Take a Stand

In 1776, at the Continental Congress, while debating rebellion, John Adams worried even more about building a strong democracy when war was over. He wrote home to Abigail:

"Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant."

Adams understood that democracy depends on the development of a discerning and self-reliant citizenry. Dependency and ignorance necessarily gravitate toward tyranny and dictatorship. When America entered World War II. Hitler believed Americans were too soft and undisciplined to withstand the rigors of war. He was wrong.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, explains the improbable American victory by focusing on the resourcefulness and self-reliance of the individual American soldier. He claims we won because of the education of American children, with its emphasis on self-reliance, by teaching them to think and act for themselves. During that war, those children, 18 and 19 years old, just out of high school, were products of a democracy, created and supported by public education, not merely open to all, but controlled locally, by friends, neighbors, and parents. This is what we were given. Do we owe any less to the next generation?

Why do I support the idea of funding high school sports through city tax dollars? Because doing so exercises local control and support for the liberal education of youth. If my City of Lawrence tax dollars can be said to go into the left pocket, with my USD 497 tax dollars going into the right pocket, dollars remain dollars. What difference does it make whether the dollars for public education come from the left pocket or the right? What difference does it make whether the money is administered by city or by school administrators? What's important is that the money is spent where it's needed, on the kids. What's important is local commitment, taking local control of the education of our children.

I know there's disagreement about how to do the best possible job of spending school money. Let's face it, some of that money will probably always be wasted; there has always been waste in government and always will be. Governments will never be run as efficiently or as waste-free as private enterprise. But while there may be disagreement about whether we do the best possible job spending education dollars, I don't believe there can be any serious disagreement but that the Kansas Legislature has dropped the ball on school funding.

The school district simply is not getting the money it needs to do its job, and under state law, USD 497 is prohibited from raising local school taxes. We're back to that right and left pocket thing. If the city can take some of the load off the school district, then the school district can reallocate the saved funds to maintain our schools. If I have money in my left pocket, can I be excused from paying my debts by claiming my right pocket is empty?

I'm like everybody else, I hate paying taxes. But all taxes are not alike; local taxes are the best taxes. School, city, and county spending is done right under our noses, where we have the greatest control, and none of it is siphoned off going back and forth between here and Topeka or Washington, D.C. More money is needed for schools, but USD 497 can't ask for it, the City can. It's the difference between the left and right pockets; at best a shabby excuse for ducking our debt to our kids.

-- Bill Skepnek is a Lawrence attorney and father of four children who attend Lawrence public schools.

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