Taxes, Education, and Foolishness

by John E. Farley

When Governor Jim Edgar proposed a plan to reform taxes and school funding in Illinois, it seemed to bring out the foolishness in almost everyone. In a letter to the Edwardsville Intelligencer, I pointed out some examples:

A lot of foolishness has been put forth by a lot of people on the school funding issue recently. For example, your own newspaper headlined an article with "School Funding Fight Draws Little Local Interest" on March 28. On reading the article, one learns that the reason for this headline was that relatively few local residents participated in the Parents' March for School Funding held last Wednesday. Did it ever occur to you that there may have been a lot of parents who supported the march's objectives, but did not attend because it was held on a working day and they had to work to support their families? To conclude that a low local turnout for the march reflects a lack of interest in its objectives is sheer foolishness. A lot of us who desperately want a fairer funding system for our children's education simply could not attend because it was Wednesday and we had to work.

It also seems that a lot of politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties have been trying to outdo each other in the foolishness department since Governor Edgar courageously proposed school funding reform last week. The Democrats are correct in pointing out that Governor Edgar attacked Dawn Clark Netsch when she proposed almost exactly the same thing in her gubernatorial campaign. But so what? When Democrats use that as an excuse not to support the plan now that the governor has come on board, they are engaging in nothing but partisan foolishness. School funding reform was a good idea when Dawn Clark Netsch proposed it, and it is still a good idea now. Instead of looking for excuses to derail it, the Democrats ought to congratulate the governor on coming on board, and encourage Republican legislators to back their own governor.

The Republicans in the state legislature have attained an even higher level of foolishness. They have attacked their own governor and raced each other to derail the plan, because they think of it as a tax increase. What they are ignoring is that, while the plan would raise state income taxes, it would also cut local property taxes. They call it a tax increase plan, when in fact it is also a tax decrease plan. The property tax, which the Edgar plan proposes to cut, varies wildly from locality to locality. And the amount any given homeowner pays depends largely on the whims of an irrational and inconsistent system of assessment. The income tax, on the other hand, operates consistently everywhere in the state. Given that we have to raise the money from somewhere, where would you rather get it from? I'll take something that's rational and consistent any day. The income tax is a fairer and more evenly-applied tax than the property tax, by far.

The prize for foolishness, however, goes to State Representative Ron Stephens. To begin with, Stephens is shamelessly racist when he seeks to dismiss the Parents' March for School Funding because the participants were "predominantly minorities." I guess Stephens thinks that if minorities raise an issue, it's not worth his time to listen. And just in case the race card doesn't work, Stephens goes on to play the regionalism card too, dismissing the marchers as "from the Chicago area." There is, of course, a good reason why a lot of minorities participated in the march: it is common in school districts with large minority populations for per-pupil spending on education to be well- below what it is in predominantly white areas. That being the case, why shouldn't minorities be actively involved in the movement for fairer school funding? Underfunding of schools in minority areas is a significant force making it harder for them to get ahead in our society. Ironically, Stephens himself acknowledges that minorities have something in common with most of his constituents: per-pupil spending in Southwest Illinois is relatively low compared to other parts of the state. We here in the Land of Goshen face a situation similar to that of the minorities whose views Stephens discounts: our schools are underfunded.

The bottom line is this: the Illinois school funding system makes a mockery of the concept of equal opportunity. Who can say there is equal opportunity when some kids have $3,000 per year spent on their schooling while others have $10,000 spent on their schooling? Ultimately, the only thing that determines how much money will be spent on a child's schooling is the accident of being born in one part of the state as opposed to another. Edgar's plan, like its predecessor proposed by Netsch, would go a long way toward remedying this. I suggest the Intelligencer, the Democrats, the Republicans, and Representative Stephens ought to all give up your foolishness for one day and support a plan that could be a key step toward making a reality something we all say we believe in - equal opportunity in education.

UPDATE, JANUARY 24, 1997 - Governor Edgar again proposed a similar plan to shift funding of schools from the property tax to the income tax, and to move toward equalization of school spending among districts, in his 1997 State of the State address. This time, both Democrats and Republicans, including Representative Stephens, seem more supportive of the proposed changes. I commend everyone who is now willing to seriously consider doing something about Illinois' appalling system of school funding, and hope that now, finally, some real reform will occur!

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