Ask not for whom the tax bell tolls, Philly

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 (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-258253466/stock-photo-finance-background.html'>Cash</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

(Cash image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

Go ahead, Mike, make my day. Tax me. I’ll pay it. With a smile. 

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter released his final proposed city budget last week. It called for a 9.3 percent increase in property taxes to support the Philadelphia public schools.

Nutter has fought a lot of grinding budget battles to find money for those schools, but in his final, lame-duck at bat, he’s really swinging for the fences.

Of course, in the realpolitik of a city election year, one observer called Nutter’s proposal “dead before it left its lips.”

But, while I have the chance, let me say this about Mike’s hike:

I’d gladly pay it.

Hear this? Rustle, rustle, mgrhhghhhhh.

That’s the sound of me, as a Philly homeowner, putting my money where my mouth is.

I’m likely in a minority.

Last week, the Daily News favored us with an illustration of Nutter as a Roman emperor, with the headline “Hail, Squeezer.” Not only was the illustration sophomoric, the sentiment amounted to little more than cheap, unthinking populism.

A work colleague saw the tabloid’s cover, though, and saluted: “That’s right. Why should I have to pay to educate someone else’s kids?”

That set me off (admittedly, that doesn’t take much provocation): “OK, then why should I pay to pave your street, or for a firehouse near you, or cops to patrol your block?”

Looking back, I think a reason I sort of lost it with this person is that I realize how many people agree with the view she expressed.   Decades of propaganda fog around school issues have obscure a central truth.

It is this: Education is primarily a collective public good, not a private consumer one. It’s not just something parents are supposed to buy for their own kids, on a par with a car seat or fancy stroller.

It’s something a community provides not only to help other people’s children, but to ensure its own health, its own decency, its own survival.

Those kids I see marching to school each morning, hunched under their brightly colored backpacks, are not just their families’ responsibility.  They are in a real way my responsibility.

They are the future of the city I love.  Their skills and citizenship will determine what kind of society my kids and grandkids will live in.  They are bulwarks of the Social Security and Medicare I will depend on when I’m just a little bit older than I am now. Their future is my future, our future. Why would I not want to invest in them?

What’s more, it’s not their fault that some of them were born into what our politics considers a wrong zip code.  It’s not their fault that our increasingly unequal society shrugs at the stark evidence that disinvestment in public schools is making the fond American promise of equal opportunity a sad joke.

Morally, I owe these kids, we all owe them, a fighting chance to surmount their beginnings.

Some of the sharpest critiques of public schools and the taxes they require has over the years come from the Christian right.

My Christian faith pushes me to exactly the opposite conclusion from that faction.

To me, calling oneself a Christian means trying to live in a morally aware way. Being willing to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s — so that schoolchildren might learn — seems to me a basic moral responsibility, a really low bar to clear.

So lay that tax bill on me, Mike. I’ve got my checkbook out, ready to pay. 

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