Quality schools are a benefit to all citizens


   Who should pay for public education — and how much — is an issue that policymakers have wrestled with since the earliest days of the republic.
   From the moment the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the American colonies — and later the fledgling United States — embraced the principle of universal education for all citizens. But for the most part, only the wealthy enjoyed this privilege; most youngsters of school age had to work on the farm, or otherwise find gainful employment, to contribute to their family’s economic survival.
   In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson called for the establishment of a public school system, and reformers, led by Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, pushed hard for the creation of "common" schools. They argued that common schooling would create good citizens, unite society and prevent crime and poverty. Largely as a result of their efforts, free public education had become available to virtually all American children by the end of the 19th century.
   Over the next 100 years, as the nation’s middle class grew exponentially, so did the public school system. Now everyone, regardless of income (or race, creed, gender, national origin and a dozen other characteristics), could — and did — attend the public schools. And the issue of who should pay for their education — and how much — took on an entirely different complexion.
   It was one thing when only wealthy kids went to the public schools and their wealthy parents paid for it. But it’s quite another when the rising cost of educating every single kid is spread out over every taxpaying citizen. That’s when you start hearing senior citizens on fixed incomes complain that they no longer have kids in the school system and can’t afford continuing to subsidize those who do. It’s when you hear parents who send their kids to private schools complain that they’re paying twice for the same service. It’s when you hear people who don’t have kids complain that they’re being charged for a service they neither need nor use.
   That’s what we’re hearing a lot of lately — and we find it deeply disturbing. Not that we don’t have sympathy for senior citizens and others on fixed incomes, especially here in New Jersey, who bear an undue burden because the state relies so heavily on regressive property taxes to fund public education. But that doesn’t mean senior citizens — or any citizens, for that matter — should be exempt from paying their fair share of the cost of educating everyone’s children.
   Education isn’t one of those commodities, like garbage collection or sewer service, that lends itself to a user fee. It would be wholly inappropriate to charge the cost of running the public schools only to those whose children attend them. For one thing, every resident benefits from a good public school system — and suffers from a bad one — in the form of rising or falling property values. For another, education is a critically important public investment; no expenditure of tax dollars is more vital to the prosperous future of our communities, our state and our nation than money spent to prepare the next generation to assume roles of social, economic and civic leadership in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
   We hope folks will keep that in mind before they start complaining about what the public schools do or don’t do for them. That’s not the issue. The issue is what the public schools do for us — all of us.