By Donella Meadows
–March 5, 1998–
Poor school districts in Vermont and New Hampshire sued for the equality of education promised in their state constitutions, and, as in many other states, they won. The courts declared what everyone knew — the funding of local schools through local property tax creates huge inequities, because we practice residential apartheid. Rich folks tend to congregate in rich towns, poor folks in poor towns with little property, not much tax, not great schools. We like to talk about equal opportunity for all, but we’re a long way from providing it.
It’s a great moment when we admit that a failed system is unfixable and must be junked. But it doesn’t feel great. We get to revisit our deepest values and try something new. We also get to gripe and recriminate and scramble for advantage.
In Vermont, a year ahead of New Hampshire in this process, the legislature has set up a statewide property tax, the revenues from which will be distributed to each school district in equal, moderate, per-pupil allotments. Any town that wants more than “moderate” is free to tax itself more. Families with incomes under $75,000 have a guaranteed upper limit on the percent of their income that goes to the statewide tax.
The consequence is that property taxes will fall or remain unchanged for 89 percent of Vermonters, while most school budgets rise. The top 11 percent, however, the folks who live in “gold towns,” are hit hard. In this week’s town meetings a few places faced property tax hikes of 30 percent combined with school budget cuts of 20 percent. The howls of outrage are understandable, but they would be easier to listen to if they were combined with some sympathy for nearby towns that have been coping for decades with even higher tax rates and even lower school budgets.
In spite of the outrage, Vermont is biting the bullet, because, I guess, it’s a conservative place in the old sense. It honors traditional values, among them the idea of working together, grumbling to be sure, but working, to solve common problems such as providing every kid with an equal education.
New Hampshire’s conservatism is of the newer, raw-individualism variety. Some of its leading political lights are promoting a constitutional amendment to take away that pesky clause about equal education. They harp on and on about the horror of taxes, not a word about the horror of poor schools.
That kind of individualism is painful to behold. I beheld it recently in a dinner conversation dominated by an angry man who was protesting paying any more tax to educate other peoples’ kids. He was stressed to the max, he said, because it costs him $25,000 a year to send his two children to private elementary school.
Jaws dropped. Why are you doing that? he was asked. He admitted that the public school in his wealthy town is one of the best in the state. But he wants his kids to have that added advantage, that special computer class, that extra music program.
Maybe if you dropped that $25,000 into the public school system, someone suggested, and the other people funding that private school did so too, ALL the kids could have the computer class and the music program.
But then my kids wouldn’t be best, he said, getting madder.
Sigh. There’s love behind that attitude, there’s the admirable willingness to do anything for one’s kids. But there’s also fear. There’s lack of faith in the kids, the community, the system’s ability to select for real merit.
If it had been a quieter discussion, I would have reminded that father that we teach our kids with everything we do. By seeking special advantage for them, he’s teaching them not to have confidence in their ability to compete without that advantage. He’s teaching them that excellence has more to do with gadgets in the classroom than with character or intelligence or hard work or sharing. That you need privileges in order to compete for a position that gives you privileges — and you are nothing without your privileges.
Those are fearsome lessons, but they are nothing compared to the inverse ones the kids in the poor schools learn.
Residential apartheid and special schools for some will not keep those kids, rich and poor, apart forever. They will live in the same country, in the same cities. We cannot do well by our own beloved children, however much we spend on their schooling, unless all children are well schooled. We can’t maintain a democracy on ignorance. We can’t run an economy on poor math skills and zero self esteem. Even if we have no compassion for families who pay higher taxes than we do to send their children to worse schools, their kids are our kids’ future. Every industrial society knows that; most of them tax themselves at much higher rates than we do and provide much better schools for everyone.
There are signs that we’re waking up to that reality. New Hampshire polls show that a constitutional amendment to sanctify educational inequality will never get past the voters. People in both states are talking about public education as an investment with big payoffs. One caller to a Vermont talk show demanded, “Why aim for just a MODERATE education for all our kids? What’s wrong with us? Why not an EXCELLENT education?”
We’re griping and yelling and resisting and changing and thinking. It’s a great moment.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998