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Who Has Better Schools: Germany or the US? Who Has Higher Taxes? Where is Life Better?

November 14, 2018

This past Sunday the NYTimes featured an op ed piece by Firoozeh Dumas, who was identified as “a humorist and writer”. His essay was a humorous recounting of his recent move from Germany to California meant that he’d be leaving a school system with robust curricular and extracurricular offerings (i.e. Germany) to one that required fees for every service imaginable (i.e. California). 

If you are reading this blog, you probably know the background on California where, in 1978 voters approved California Proposition 13 (officially named “the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation“) which amended the Constitution of California by limiting property taxes to “one percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property”. Here’s a description of the Proposition taken from Wikipedia:

The proposition decreased property taxes by assessing property values at their 1976 value and restricted annual increases of assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2 percent per year. It also prohibited reassessment of a new base year value except in cases of (a) change in ownership, or (b) completion of new construction. These rules apply equally to all real estate, residential and commercial– whether owned by individuals or corporations.

The other significant portion of the initiative is that it requires a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for future increases of any state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates. It also requires a two-thirds vote majority in local elections for local governments wishing to increase special taxes. Proposition 13 received an enormous amount of publicity, not only in California, but throughout the United States.

After this was passed via the referendum process in California, similar propositions were passed by voters and legislators in other parts of the country, having a devastating impact on property poor towns everywhere the bills were adopted. Proposition 13’s impact is the backdrop for Mr. Dumas’ piece, which contrasts the tax situation in this paragraph:

We are fortunate to live in a part of Munich with top-notch public schools, similar to where we lived in America. We pay a few percentage points more in taxes than we paid in California, but holy Betsy DeVos, do we get more!

After describing the rich program his children experienced in Munich– and making a passing reference to the fact that they benefitted from a tracking system that he found distasteful– Mr. Dumas’ contrasts it to his experiences growing up in California:

The schools I attended growing up in California were nothing like this.I was in middle school when Proposition 13, a law meant to ease residents’ tax burden, passed in 1978. The impact on the state’s school budgets was immediate. I still remember art, music and language programs being gutted seemingly overnight, and counselors and librarians disappearing. As a parent, I assumed that for schools to get what they needed, we would have to pay significantly more in taxes, and who wants that?Parents are expected to donate time and money to make up for what the government can’t provide. In addition to raising funds for our own schools, I and many others raised money for schools in areas with fewer resources. It was the little Dutch boy and the dike, but for every hole we plugged, a dozen more appeared.

And, as Mr. Dumas noted, the German way of life had much more ease and spaciousness. When the government provides reliable transportation and a sound education system, when employers do not expect their workers to put in 60 hours a week and/or work on “flexible schedules”, when parents are not expected to help their children raise money for the school by selling wrapping paper, family life is better. Here is Mr. Dumas’ closing paragraph:

As I prepare to return to California, I am looking forward to seeing my family and reuniting with dear friends, many of whom I met while chaperoning, organizing auctions, selling cupcakes, supervising the playground and doing lice checks. I will undoubtedly take part in fund-raising for my child’s new school, but please forgive me if my homemade cupcakes taste like resentment frosted with betrayal and sprinkled with exasperation. Unfortunately, I’ve now enjoyed a system where for a little more in taxes, I get a lot more in services. And that leaves a bitter aftertaste.

It would be a lot funnier if it weren’t true.

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