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Billionaires’ Kalamazoo Promise Offers Free Tuition to Any Student Accepted into Post Secondary Schools

May 4, 2018

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday offering glowing praise to the anonymous billionaires who fund the Kalamazoo Promise. She describes the program in this paragraph:

Every student who attends the Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten through senior year and graduates receives a full scholarship for any public or private university in Michigan where he or she is accepted. All costs, tuition, books, fees, are covered. For those who attend the KPS schools for four years of high school, 65% of tuition is covered.

For the balance of the post she describes how this benefits all students and the community, noting that since the program was conceived the public school enrollments have increased and the programs offered at the local community college have expanded. But two commenters identified the flaws with this program: instead of relying on the unified support of taxpayers to fund post-secondary opportunities it relies on the whims of anonymous billionaires… billionaires who, in all probability, benefitted from tax breaks themselves.

Commenter Steve Nelson, emphasizing the conditionality of many billionaire donors, wrote:

It is hard to argue against such anonymous generosity. However . . .

The problem with this lovely example is that it is the legacy of GHW Bush’s Thousand Points of Light, which was essentially a way to erode social justice as a part of America’s social contract and replace it with private philanthropy. Charity is not justice. Charity is selective and insufficient.

I agree that it can be an example to other billionaires, but it also perpetuates a system in which we are dependent on and beholden to billionaires. I’d rather we progressively tax billionaires and create systems of justice and equity that serve all people. As we see with Gates, Broad, Walton and others, billionaires seldom give unconditionally. They give to impose their values and policy preferences on the rest of us.

And “Some Damn Poet”, who often provides commentary in rhymed couplets, wrote, in part:

If we wanted to fully fund all of our schools and even build thousands of new schools around the country to replace decrepit and decaying old ones, we could easily do it simply by levying a tax on all corporations, say 1% annually.

And of course, if these corporations just paid the taxes they actually owe, that alone would go a long ways. The recent tax windfall for corporations holding nearly $3 trillion offshore allowed America’s largest companies to avoid paying about half a trillion dollars in taxes. This alone would have financed nearly 17,000 brand new schools at $30 million apiece.

The money is there, but the political will is not

Not for the Republicans and not for the Democrats.

He later qualified his assertions, noting that:

Total US corporate profits for 2017 were about $9 trillion so if that were taxed at 1%, it would bring in about $90 billion.

That’s significant, but nowhere near the amount required for what I claimed.

In an effort to assure him that his original assertions were valid, I offered this comment:

Determining the amount of local and state taxes avoided by corporations and businesses is even more complicated because many state and local governments offer tax breaks and free infrastructure upgrades to businesses… “incentives” in the parlance of politicians and economic development offices. Amazon’s crass bidding for tax breaks and infrastructure upgrades happens all the time. When corporations get tax breaks, someone has to backfill the lost revenues… and that someone is homeowners.

Until politicians recognize that public education benefits everyone— students, parents, communities, and– yes— businesses… we will continue to be beholden to the generosity of billionaires whose whims will determine where investments are made. And we will need to face the reality that many of those billionaires’ profits were created by our tax code.

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