Alameda’s school parcel tax: What is unfair?
Some opponents of Measure E, the school parcel tax that Alamedans will vote on by mail between May 26 and June 22, complain that the measure is not fair.
Hmm, fair? Is it fair that one child is born into a rich family in a rich country – with access to everything he or she needs – when another is born poor in a poor country, where hunger is a daily reality? Fair that the children in the Liberian town in which my sister-in-law worked recently must survive on one meal a day? That children there cannot go to school unless they can provide a chair, a pencil, a uniform — and also pay tuition – conditions well beyond the reach of most?
“Life is not fair,” my mother always said. “There are no guarantees.”
So much in life, especially for children, who we certainly cannot blame for their circumstances, is horribly unfair. But even though we do live in an unfair world, we scurry on, trying to do the best for ourselves and for others around us. And sometimes in life we must choose between competing forms of unfairness.
Here in Alameda, is it fair that my neighbor who lives in a 750-square-foot bungalow pays the same school parcel taxes as I do on my 2,000-square-foot home? That another Alamedan who owns a 6,500-square-foot home, updated and refurbished and valued in the millions, pays the same per parcel? Maybe not. Will every single taxpayer, be they residential or commercial, pay the exact most appropriate levy? Not a chance.
But California law severely limits the ways in which local communities can raise revenues for schools. School taxes must pass by a two-thirds majority, for example, and parcel taxes cannot be proportional to property value. And although some have proposed it as a solution, it is not legal for communities to charge tuition for public schools.
So, yes, parcel taxes are not supremely fair, but deciding not to fund public schools is a far more grave injustice, far more profound than defects in California tax law and Measure E. Surely we don’t want to emulate the circumstances of the world’s most impoverished countries? Because when we deny children the opportunity to attend quality schools, we destroy the hope of a better future, of a chance to create a better lot for themselves — and we chip away at the American dream of improvement by education that has made our county so great.
Opponents of Measure E have also produced the remarkably imaginative though thoroughly false argument that passing Measure E to fund local schools will hurt students without means. This notion would be laughable, were not cruel. The truth, of course, is that schools that serve more affluent families are able to supplement public funding with donations of time and money. Just look at what Island PTAs already raise, look at how many thousands upon thousands of hours parents already pour into schools. When budgets are cut, it is the schools in which parents don’t have time and money that suffer disproportionately. Measure E will help families without means far more than those in affluent families by assuring that the basics of education are delivered to all.
And remember, Measure E dollars stay in Alameda — the money doesn’t get shipped off to Sacramento or Washington.
In the end, I suspect that every single one of us feels a strong desire to do right by children who cannot and should not be held responsible for the fiscal disaster that is the California into which they were born. And children certainly cannot be held responsible for the way state tax laws are structured.
It is within our power to support our community, to fund our local schools, and do right by the children of Alameda – and that is why I am voting yes on E.
This is Eve Pearlman’s final column for The Island.