We live, as it seems, in a country that’s seen its best days. The number of Americans dwelling in poverty has hit its highest rate in the 52 years since we began keeping track of it, employment continues to drop, and with incompetent leadership on both sides of the aisle there’s no end in sight to the economic slide into which we’ve fallen. Intellectually as well as economically, we’re being outstripped by what in our lifetimes were Third-World nations.
Voices among our present and would-be leadership want to respond to this state of affairs by cutting government and further cutting taxes (as we continue to wage expensive warfare in the Middle East on the pretext of fighting terror and spreading democracy, but really to keep a grip on the world’s supply of fossil fuels). Among the most obvious victims of this plan are our children, whose teachers are being canned left and right and whose schoolrooms are overcrowded and undersupplied. In my state a Proposition 13 will go on the ballot next year; given this year’s startling jump in property taxes, it’s a foregone conclusion voters will usher it right in, further gutting schools, libraries, and other public services.
This, of course, will shift the burden for educating future generations to parents. Those who are affluent will put their kids in increasingly pricey private schools. Those who can’t will be asked to buy supplies and books and eventually to pay for the maintenance and operation of the public schools out of their own pockets. Those who can’t afford it will take their kids out of school altogether. And those who think it can’t happen here delude themselves.
Consider what it costs for the individual users of a school system to support it. In China, whose children easily outstrip ours in math and science and where all schoolchildren are taught a foreign language, the cost of education consumes nearly a third of a family’s income. That’s if your kids are in kindergarten and you make a relatively decent living in a city. Rural residents, whose income is significantly lower than their citified cousins’, pay an even larger proportion of family income to keep the kids in the lower grades.
College there is simply out of reach for most people, especially for rural folks. Tuition is 5,000 yuan a year, well past the realm of reason on an income of 3,200 yuan.
America has managed to maintain its global position largely as the result of its universal free education. In our past we were lucky enough to have leaders who recognized that our children are our future. The way we’ve supported that engine of prosperity, once capable of graduating seniors who knew where Wisconsin is located and who understood what the word “urbanization” means, has been through taxation: everyone who benefits from the system, however indirectly, chips into it.
Imagine how many Americans at the poverty line—$22,350 a year for a family of four; $14,700 for a single mom with one child—would keep their kids in school if they had to pay the per-capita cost. In 1992 that was $7,764 a year. You can be sure it’s more than that today.
Could you afford to spend $8,000 a year to send your kids through grade school and high school? How much would you have left for the average public university tuition, books, and room and board: $16,153 a year?
Image: Matthew Trump, One-room Schoolhouse in Jefferson, Colorado. GNU Free Documentation License.