The newspapers are reporting that a state senator is raising (again) the idea that what Utah schools need is more money and that this money should come from increasing taxes on parenting. Specifically, the “revenue enhancement” (“a politically correct term for raising taxes,” as an online dictionary explains) would come “by ending state income tax exemptions for dependents.” The rationale is explained by Senator Pat Jones: “We have to invest in our neighborhood schools, and I believe this is the way to do it.”
There is certainly common ground here. Public schools should be true neighborhood schools, though not just in funding but also in local control. Society also has an interest in the education of children. However, this particular proposal and the comments made in support of it disclose some subtle but important (and deeply problematic) ways of understanding parents, children and education.
First, the proposed change is riddled with contradictions. In explaining an earlier version of the idea, the Deseret News said: “The bill challenges whether people without children should pay more to educate them than those with children.” Senator Jones was quoted as saying the bill “puts the responsibility where it should be.” If this is true, why would parents who send their children to private schools or who educate them at home have to pay income tax at all? Not all individuals who can claim dependents even have children. Should they also be exempt? What about people whose children are young or people who don’t have children? Presumably, supporters of the parenthood tax increase would point to the general social benefit of an educated populace. That rationale, however, contradicts the rationale of making people with children “responsible” for paying more into the system.
The second point to note is related to this last comment – that the “investment” proponents would like to see is in “schools” or, in other words, in a specific educational system. Senator Jones says we need to broaden the base of taxpayer support for the schools because “we all share a responsibility in educating our kids and our grandkids.” True enough, but the rationale for the dependent exemption is the same – that all of society benefits when we have strong families with children who provide the future in ways both concrete (providing for the retirement of others who may or may not have children of their own) and subtle (we all have to live together and will benefit if our fellow citizens in future generations are civilized and capable).
Thus, the rationale for the head tax (we all need to support the schools) and for the dependent exemption (we need to support those who are actually providing our future) are at odds. How can they be reconciled? Only by conflating the needs of children with the funding of schools. As noted above, this is not a precise fit since there are parents (often of many children) who do not utilize the public school system or who do so in very limited ways.
This proposal presents a classic case of goal displacement – the goal of providing for our future by investing in children is being displaced by the goal of raising funds for the state school system. Perhaps many children will benefit from the latter goal, but if in pursuit of it we discourage parents from having children or make their task of providing for them more difficult, we will have undercut the much more vital child-centered goal.
The final point is the most obvious. It involves a questionable assumption at the very root of the proposal – that the primary way of improving education is to pump more money into it. Instead of a parenting tax, wouldn’t we do well to consider innovations that allow more to be accomplished using less money? Or, are there cost-cutting measures that could be pursued? It is hard to believe that this single area of government is the only one without some waste and inefficiency. Cutting costs is what other aspects of government are being asked to do in difficult financial times.
Utah’s consistently exceptional birth and fertility rates are a source of justifiable pride. They signal a continued vibrancy and stability that is lacking in states with lower rates where “birth and fertility rates are now so low that the state’s economic future is threatened because there will be too few workers to attract and keep businesses.” Only ideologues believe that the state can provide whatUtah’s children need better than can parents. So, we ought to be adamant in opposing any attempt to penalize those we all depend on to create and raise our future.