A divided Eastham Select Board in January decided once again to put off for a year a decision on whether to adopt the residential tax exemption (RTE), which would shift the property tax burden marginally away from year-round residents and onto second-home owners. It’s a contentious issue that raises questions of fairness.
One of the arguments often made against the RTE is that nonresident taxpayers already pay more than their fair share of taxes because they make few demands on municipal services. In particular, this line of reasoning goes, they don’t make any use of the schools and shouldn’t have to pay for them.
This argument always stops me in my tracks because it questions something quite basic to our civic life. What is the use of having public schools in the first place? What are they for, and who should pay for them?
It does seem clear that families benefit from being able to send their children to the Outer Cape’s very good and well-funded schools. Who else benefits?
Our automobile mechanic grew up in Wellfleet, went to public schools, and now has a good business here that we depend on. A lot of second-home owners depend on him, too. He learned how to work on cars at Cape Cod Tech and at other schools he went to after graduating. He’s also notably hard-working, reliable, honest, and funny. I don’t know exactly how he got to be that way, but I suspect that the schools he attended and the people he encountered there had something to do with it.
Schools have a great deal to do with producing the kinds of fellow citizens we want to be surrounded with. Teachers, coaches, counselors, librarians, cooks, janitors, and school bus drivers — not to mention principals and superintendents — all have influence on young people and the adults they become. Will they be people you would want to have as neighbors and friends?
I am reminded of a conversation I had 25 years ago with Ted Sizer, the late education reformer and author. I asked him what schools were for. He said he wanted teachers and principals to look beyond test scores and grades to more fundamental signs of citizenship. “I care about the kid who reads a newspaper and bothers to vote, and votes in an informed way,” Sizer said. He wanted schools to educate students in a way that would lead them to participate in civic life and to do the right thing “when no one was looking” — that is, not for a material reward, but for the intrinsic pleasure of doing good.
One can certainly argue against funding schools with property taxes, which can hurt people on fixed incomes. But the argument should not be about whether the people paying the taxes send their own children to the schools. That assumes that civic life is purely transactional — that we pay taxes in exchange for services received.
The benefits of good public schools aren’t going to be obvious on a balance sheet. But they are obvious at town meeting and on election night.