Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Self-Interest in Sharing

My neighbors down the street have two charming children, ages about 6 and 8.  This Sunday they set up what I thought was a lemonade stand and my partner and I went down to give them some business.  (I always buy anything that a neighbor kid is selling—it feels like part of what you do to be a good neighbor.  As a consequence I have quite a few rolls of wrapping paper, calendars, many boxes of Girl Scout cookies and a lot of other stuff I don’t even remember.)  It turned out that the lemonade was a come-on.  We were having an unseasonably hot day and many people were attracted to a glass of cold lemonade.  The lemonade was free to any person who bought a raffle ticket for $2.00.  The raffle benefits their public school, and, according to the older child, will help their school continue to have physical education, an art program and a library.  They were doing quite a brisk business.

I was sent down memory lane while standing there chatting with neighbors and other passers-by.  I grew up in Colorado and started first grade in 1959.  All the time I was in school we envied California’s schools.  If we could only go to public school in California, all doors would open for us!  We took a “California Standardized Test” in elementary school to see if we were as smart as Californians.  At that time, and until well after I had graduated from college, California’s schools were #1 in the nation.  Even a mediocre public school in California was better than a good school in many other states.  Now California’s schools are #48, kept from being #50 by hardworking PTA parents, and by kids giving up their sunny Sundays to sell raffle tickets. 

What happened?  To make a very long story short, property taxes finance public schools in California, as they do in many states.  Until the late 1960’s, districts where property was worth more had more money from taxes, and thus better schools.  Even if a poor neighborhood voted to tax itself a lot, it wouldn’t generate as much money as a wealthier neighborhood which might not even have as high a tax base.  Although all California schools were good, some were way better than others.  This inequality was challenged at the Supreme Court in a case called Serrano vs. Priest. The court ordered California to create a more equalized manner for funding for schools which essentially meant that wealthier districts had to share their money.  This ruling, as well as skyrocketing property values causing such high property taxes that some people were forced to sell their homes because they couldn’t pay their taxes, led to the passage of the infamous Prop. 13.  Prop 13 held property taxes to their 1977 levels (with incremental increases), and profoundly reduced funding for education. This loss of funding gutted public schools and scores of other public services. There is much more to this story, but basically, the majority of the voters (not to be confused with the majority of the people) did not care whether every child had equal access to high quality public education, if that meant sharing money from their districts with others. 

California schools went from #1 to #48 over the course of two decades.  The people that have suffered the most from this proposition weren’t even born when it was passed.

I drink my lemonade and listen to the kids explain to each customer what school they go to, where it is, and why they are raising money.  I believe in high quality public education for all children because I don’t have children, and when I get too old to take care of myself, I won’t have my own children to rely on and advocate for me the way I do for my own mother.  The children that I buy raffle tickets from today will be my doctor, my lawyer, my nurse, my health care aide, my handyman, in 20 years.  I need them all to know how to have a conversation, read and do math, be physically fit and hopefully, be happy.  They will take better care of me if all that is true.

We head home and the mother says again, “Thank you so much. You are very generous.”  “No,” I think to myself, “I am not generous at all. In fact I am the essence of selfish.”  A commons view of the world starts with a very healthy sense of self and goes out from there to create systems in which all “selves” experience equity in their lives.  The failure to understand the relationship between selfishness and equity is what leads people to vote against their own self-interest.  No one in California is served by having bad schools, some of which are less bad than others.  The unwillingness to share simply pulled everyone down, and it will take decades to undo that damage.

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