The Object of Our Taxation

This is the third in a larger blog series about liberating education through educational freedom.

In his 1958 book Freedom of Choice in Education, Father Virgil Blum stated, “It is fundamental that the state’s educational obligations are not to institutions and systems; its obligations are to children—the individual children of the state. Educational institutions are but means to help the state carry out its educational obligations.”

Following this idea, I recently claimed that the fundamental problem with public education in the United States is that “[w]e presume the tax dollars that fund a child’s education belong to the public school district and the child belongs in a public school seat.” Peter Greene, an education blogger, took issue with my claim. He agrees that taxpayer dollars do not belong to the public school district, but he suggests they don’t belong to the student either. Rather, they belong to the taxpayer.

But when Greene says the taxes belong to the taxpayer, I don’t think he really means that. Otherwise, you and I should be able to demand a refund. Rather, he means the money belongs to taxpayers as a collective body and that we have a right to determine how we should spend the money to accomplish our aims.

In many ways, I agree. Taxpayers have a right to collectively determine how we should spend education dollars. That is why it is so important for us to answer fundamental questions of purpose. What are our educational obligations? Why do we pay taxes for education?

Greene gets the answer almost right; he just includes a few too many words. He wrote, “The taxpayer handed over that money for a specific purpose—to set up and maintain a public school to educate all the children in our community.”

So close! Notice that he uses the word “to” twice: “to set up” and “to educate.” We could rewrite this as: “We tax ourselves to set up a system of education for the purposes of educating children.” There we have it…almost.

We don’t just want to educate children, we want to educate them to a certain end—to become citizens who can participate in our democratic society. In other words, our aim is to produce individuals who can think for themselves and are capable of self-government.

Those who believe that traditional public schools are, and of right ought to be, our only means for delivering public education seem to think that democratization occurs by bringing children together within the confines of a school building that is governed by a particular form of democratic management—a school board. Somehow, the very act of compelling students to attend a residentially-assigned school helps instill democratic ideals. That’s simply preposterous.

The truth is just the opposite: Our traditional public school system does not comport with our stated aims. We intend to cultivate a citizenry who can think for themselves, but we deny their parents the right to determine what is best for their children.  We have strong protections for the rights and viewpoints of minorities in our broader society, but we do not have those same protections for students in public schools. If 51 percent of a school district wishes to teach math or history or science in a particular way, the rest must go along with it. Those with differing views have little recourse.

We cannot promote democracy by thwarting individual freedom.

Education is the mechanism by which minds are molded. As such, it is the institution that must be safeguarded by individual liberty. Father Blum put it this way, “Of all the areas of human activities that demand freedom from complete government control and domination, that of education is the most vital for the preservation of democracy.”

Why do we pay taxes for education? What is the purpose? Is it to build school buildings? To fund a school district? To pay teacher salaries? No, those are but a means to our end. We pay taxes to educate children. They are the object of our taxation.

As such, it is up to us, the taxpayers, to demand a system of education that is in line with our democratic values: a system that welcomes diversity, encourages pluralism and incentivizes excellence. It is up to us to demand a system of educational freedom that is not confined by geographic boundaries, socioeconomic status or a particular set of beliefs or non-beliefs.

If we are to instill in young minds the values we hold dear as a pluralistic nation, we must not limit their access to a single education channel designed by those in power—those in the majority—to perpetuate that power. We must instead fling wide the gates to a marketplace of ideas and beliefs that reflects who we are and where we have come from as Americans. Then, and only then, will our educational system—and those in it—be truly liberated.

Other Posts in This Series

Liberating Education

The Roots of Educational Freedom