We Need the Best Schools Taxes
This essay appeared
in the September 23, 2005 edition of the Portland Tribune
Author: Samuel Metz
In the words of the renowned
20th century Western philosopher, W. C. Fields, "It is
time to take the bull by the tail and face the
Our schools deserve more
money and we should give it to them.
This is a hard sell.
Many will ask, "Why should I
pay to educate your children?" The flippant answer is that
my uneducated children will steal your car and increase
your insurance rates; consume precious police and judicial
time when they get caught; live on your tax dollars when
they are convicted and sent to prison; and never pay a
penny in taxes because they never earn an honest dime.
A more serious answer is that
original dollars invested in education repay taxpayers
many times over (anywhere from three to eight times
according to the Economic Policy Institute,
www.epinet.org). How does education pay for itself?
1. When educated students hit
the work force, they generate more taxes than their
education cost as their improved careers generate greater
2. Our communities are safer
because better educated students commit fewer crimes,
break into fewer houses, avoid being unwed parents, and
resist drug abuse.
3. Future taxes decrease
because better educated students spend less time in
prisons and jails. The predicted investment return would
be the envy of any venture capitalist: each dollar
invested in public education produces a 10 to 20 fold
return in money not spent on judicial and incarceration
costs, currently 15% of our state budget.
4. Businesses seek
communities with excellent schools. Why? Better schools
attract talented workers. How do we know this? Did you
know anyone who paid a premium buying a house in a better
Ultimately, better schools
reduce taxes and improve everyoneís quality of life.
But today, right now, where
will this tax money come from?
A sales tax. Many taxpayers
may reach for smelling salts, but we have finally met the
right justification for a tax Oregonians have avoided for
Why a sales tax?
Property taxes are fixed by
state constitutional amendments; it would require
(literally) an act of congress to change them. And who
thinks our property taxes arenít high enough?
Oregon already depends more
on its state income tax than any other state does on any
other single tax. Not a good source of money for our
A sales tax is the least
onerous answer. Citizens for Oregonís Future, with data
from the Legislative Revenue Office, estimate that a
limited sales tax exempting services, shelter, food,
health care, medicines, and utilities would generate $1.1
billion every two years per 1% tax (www.fororegon.org). A
2% sales tax would increase our public school revenue by
50% over its current budget, an amazing sum that could
make excellent schools a reality in every district in
But we taxpayers are a
suspicious lot. How do we prevent every interest group in
the state from diving into the new-found revenue? How can
we be sure the schools will use this windfall wisely? And
how can we prevent this sales tax from ballooning even
Good questions. Consider
1. We enact a 2% restricted
sales tax exempting shelter, food, health care, medicines,
and utilities with revenue dedicated exclusively to K-12
2. We freeze this tax for ten
years, long enough to document benefit from this
investment. If we donít see a detectable improvement in
our state in ten years, the tax automatically ends.
3. To insure transparency and
accountability, no school district could enjoy any of this
largesse without a public proposal describing exactly how
their money might be spent.
4. And to protect our current
school funding, freeze the current school budget in the
general revenue tax pool ($5.24 billion) for the next ten
years. Perhaps add an automatic 2% cost of living rider.
Here are the downsides.
Retailers are burdened by additional accounting needed to
collect and submit taxes. The cost of discretionary
spending goes up two cents for every dollar spent, which
would still be less than half of any neighboring state (www.salestaxinstitute.com).
Interest groups look hungrily at the extra $2 billion and
plot how to get their fingers into it.
Here is what we achieve: The
quality of public education soars. The best teachers in
the country compete to work in Oregon. Students learn
more, learn faster, and stay interested longer. Literacy
rises. More literate high school graduates seek jobs with
high potential, or plan for higher education. Welfare use
drops. Recreational drug use declines. Teenage pregnancies
go down. Prisons slowly empty as fewer criminals enter.
New businesses look favorably on Oregon for relocation
sites. And all of us enjoy safer streets.
A 2% sales tax, frozen for
ten years, dedicated to making the next generation of
Oregon citizens the best educated citizens in the country.
That investment will richly reward all of us. Letís do it.