When you complain about paying your taxes this week, thank a teacher.
After all, it probably was a teacher who taught you how to form a logical argument, how to do the math that allows you to calculate your taxes and how to read and write in ways that allow you to earn a taxable income.
And yet, teachers now stand at the epicenter of a national debate about how low taxes can go and allow us to remain a functioning society. Two states where I have lived — Oklahoma, where I was born and educated through the 11th grade, and Kentucky, where my children started school — have cut spending on education (under the guise of tax cuts) to the point of instability.
This reminds me of the old farmer’s adage that is considered a backbone of conservative financial management: Never eat your seed corn. The idea is that farmers know they must always save some of their produce as seed for the next planting. If you are so hungry you must eat your seed, you better plan on this being your last winter among the living.
Too many states in our union, and even our nation itself, have cut funding for public education to the point of eating their seed corn. And they have done so around the rallying cry of low, low, bargain-basement taxes. It seems there is no bottom to the desire to avoid paying taxes.
This is neither wise nor fiscally conservative. It is, instead, selfish. There is a difference between fiscal conservativism and selfishness, by the way.
What we are witnessing in America today is the chickens coming home to roost (to borrow another agricultural metaphor) after decades of outdoing each other in complaining about taxes. Seldom do we hear on April 15 anyone expressing gratitude for the military and police protection, the education, the clean water, the clean air and the cheap groceries made possible by their tax dollars. Instead, we only hear about government waste and excess. As if most of us manage our own money so much better.
And now, we are eating our seed corn and calling ourselves frugal. All for the sake of saving a few dollars in taxes.
The fruit of this labor is destined to be the demise of public education, which is just fine with some who neither depend upon nor value public education and cannot see farther than their balance sheets. Once again, this is not a conservative value because true conservatives value a strong labor force, mature leaders and healthy communities — all made possible by a strong system of public education.
It is now time for the church in America to step up and speak for our public educators. Here’s why:
1. The Protestant church emerged from the fundamental demand that ordinary people should be able to read and understand the Bible for themselves. The very foundation of our faith and worship is rooted in public education.
2. It is not sufficient to leave the task of education to the church alone. Supporting public education has been a hallmark of Protestant Christians in America from the beginning. We have known from experience that education controlled only by the church is inherently sectarian and exclusive. Freedom of conscience demands a free and open system of education. Private schools alone cannot — and will not — educate the masses.
3. Our congregations historically have been and remain filled with public educators, who are living examples of giving your life to a cause that serves others in the name of Christ. Just today, a veteran teacher in my Sunday school class lamented that she is “only a teacher” and cannot have the influence of a pastor or a missionary. I quickly made a case that she and her colleagues do more to shape young people than most pastors or missionaries. I am the child of a public schoolteacher and the father of a public schoolteacher, and I know firsthand the lifetime influence teachers bear.
4. Our faith calls us to seek the common good. From Jewish tradition to the teachings of Jesus and the example of the early church, we are called to be our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and to share with others the bountiful blessings of our heavenly Father. A free public education is built upon the ideal of serving the common good, which is good for us individually and collectively. This is an inherently Christian concept.
5. Sacrifice, not hoarding, is the example we have been given in Scripture. Not only did Jesus say to give unto Caesar what is due but to store up treasures in heaven rather than building bigger barns to store our tax-free excess like trophies.
When we make a golden calf of not paying taxes, we become like the children of Israel who could not see the greater good that lay ahead and so sacrificed the wrong things out of impatience and greed. You might even say that golden calf ate their spiritual seed corn.