Joseph J. Roy: ‘Citizens’ recognize importance of education to community

In case you missed this op-ed piece in the morning call from our BASD superintendent Joseph Roy:
No one ever calls my office and asks to speak with me because they are a “citizen.” Callers always ask to speak to me because they are “taxpayers.” I have recently begun to wonder why.
Pennsylvania is 47th out of 50 when it comes to the state’s share of paying for the overall cost of public education. The state’s failure to meet its responsibility to finance schools creates an undue burden on local property taxpayers to support our public schools. The unfortunate consequence is a narrow focus on property taxes (the revenue side of school budgets) without sufficient public awareness of the community benefit (the expenditure side of school budgets) gained through educational programs and initiatives.
As a result, the use of the term “taxpayer” has crowded out the idea of “citizen.”
Headlines regarding school budgets nearly always feature property tax rates, overshadowing the fact that these budgets are an investment by citizens in the future of our communities.

“Citizen” aligns more with the democratic notion of education for the common good. “Citizens” have individual rights AND collective responsibilities to each other. By meeting those responsibilities, our local taxes pay for police and fire protection, roads, bridges, safety regulations, public parks and public schools — all of which contribute to safe, healthy, educated communities.
When you switch the lens from “citizen” to “taxpayer,” you switch from a community view to an individual, consumer view. “Taxpayer” suggests a financial transaction like a purchase. “I paid taxes,” therefore I demand something for me in return. As if paying taxes is similar to a purchase in the private sector.
Supporters of privatizing public school financing through targeted tax breaks and vouchers actually advocate for treating public education like a private transaction. The triumph of the “taxpayer” over the “citizen” in school budget rhetoric reinforces the anti-public education privatization movement and weakens our concept of community.
School budgets are an investment in economic development. The Lehigh Valley’s current skilled trades, doctors, nurses, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, lawyers, educators, engineers, mothers and fathers who make up our wonderful community were educated as a result of past citizen investment in local schools.
Today’s school taxes support critical programs that train students to fill key economic needs in our region. In response to increasing regional business needs for skilled trades, computer driven manufacturing, engineering and biosciences, the Bethlehem Area School District implemented pre-engineering and biomedical science courses. The Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School increased its capacity to graduate skilled welders, electricians, precision machinists and masons.
At a bare minimum, a high school diploma is needed for a student to be a capable contributor in our local economy. The odds of a student graduating from high school increase dramatically when they are on grade level reading by grade 3. As a result, BASD has invested in early literacy programs that have sparked remarkable growth in kindergarten and first grade reading results.
Innovative partnerships such as our Musikfest Marketing class bring together high school students with ArtsQuest professionals to teach real life business skills through research, booking and promoting Musikfest acts.
School taxes are also an investment in the Liberty High School Grenadier Band, Freedom High School musicals and Friday night football games that build a sense of community pride and togetherness that few other organizations can generate.
BASD has invested in upgrading our wireless internet connectivity so students have access to digital materials that in the past would have been available only through textbooks.
All of these investments in our public schools are thanks to the collective efforts of “citizens” to meet our responsibilities to each other. Thanks to these investments, today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens, taxpayers, employers and community leaders.
As we move through the annual school budget development process this spring, it is my hope that public conversations recognize that school taxes reflect “citizen” investment in meeting our collective responsibility to today’s youth in building tomorrow’s Lehigh Valley community.
BASD Proud Parents is strictly pro-public education. We are an independent group with no affiliations to the BASD school board or any political parties. Our goals are to help parents stay informed about educational policy discussions and to facilitate ways for any of us who would like the chance to have our voices heard, to get more involved in those policy conversations.