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May 25, 2006

Another Roadblock to Education

Tony Soltero

Monday's edition of The Frederick News-Post featured a prominent front-page piece describing senior citizens' concerns over the lack of savings by many of our young people. Though some of it was the typical kids-these-days, there's no doubt that the real wages offered by entry-level jobs have tanked badly in our current economy, and this has severely impacted many teenagers' ability to save.

Despite these roadblocks, some young people still manage to summon together enough discipline, work ethic, family support, and luck to put away some money for college. And millions of American families value their children’s education to the point they set aside college funds for them, sometimes from infancy.

Given the spiraling costs of higher education today, such savings are not often much more than a few drops in the bucket, but they do help. And in the spirit of supporting families that value education, college savings funds assigned to adolescents were taxed at much lower rates than comparable adult funds.

Until last week.

President George W. Bush has just signed a "tax cut" bill that features the usual giveaways to his buddies in the oil, pharmaceutical, and war-profiteering industries – a total of $69 billion worth of largesse, despite the obscenely expensive Iraq war and record-breaking deficits. But give The Decider some credit – he did do a teeny weeny little bit to mitigate the impact on our nation's fiscal health.

And how did he accomplish this? Well, he raised the tax on those college savings funds mentioned above; tripled the tax, in fact. Paris Hilton, Oprah Winfrey, and Dick Cheney got themselves nice, bountiful tax cuts, but not to worry – your neighbor's son will cover for them out of his college fund.

According to David Cay Johnston of The New York Times, "teenagers age 14 to 17 with investment income will now be taxed at the same rate as their parents, not at their own rates. Long-term capital gains and dividends that had been taxed at 5 percent will now be taxed at 15 percent. Interest that had been taxed at 10 percent will now be taxed at as much as 35 percent."

As The Decider's father once said, "Read my lips..." Gotta love that compassionate conservatism, eh?

What's especially egregious is that this tax increase, according to The Times article, will generate a puny $2.2 billion over the next 10 years. Frankly, that's nothing – it’s going to have all the impact of a teaspoonful of chlorine in an Olympic swimming pool. But it's going to smother the higher education dreams of thousands of American children.

Some have tried to point out that this tax increase simply closes a loophole, by preventing parents from "hiding" their own funds in these low-tax accounts. But that argument doesn't hold water, because there's a far easier way to prevent these occasional abuses – simply create stiff tax penalties if the funds are not used for college.

This tax increase is pointless and mean-spirited, and its relative insignificance in the budget picture suggests that there's another, darker agenda at work.

On the surface it seems incongruous that our government would penalize adolescents who exhibit the values of thrift, responsibility, and delayed gratification; but at another level, pulling out the rug like this makes perfect sense in the context of Republican values.

The Bush administration has been nothing if not unremittingly hostile to education. The No Child Left Behind initiative, which was never fully funded as promised, has been so disastrous for our public education system that many teachers are now in open rebellion against it.

Public dollars are re-routed to fundamentalist schools, where children learn crackpot theories like "intelligent design" at taxpayer expense. College tuitions have skyrocketed, as Bush minions, like Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, do their dirty work at the state level. Pell Grants have been eviscerated; student loans have increasingly become a new form of indentured servitude. The average college graduate today leaves school $20,000 in hock – and an economy that produces few entry-level jobs that pay enough to cover such debts.

This Republican attack on educational opportunity has been so aggressive and far-reaching that it seems deliberate. And it is deliberate.

Every 18-year-old shut out of college is an extra 18-year-old who can be shipped off to an overseas war. Every child denied a decent education is a child who doesn't develop the critical thinking skills necessary for becoming a contributing, civic-minded member of society.

The Republican government's ultimate goal is to create a Wal-Mart Nation of mindless drones, a new bevy of American serfs who meekly do what they're told. Subjects, not citizens.

Taken in that context, the tax increase on families saving for college fits nicely into the Bush agenda. Republicans can't have the permanent aristocracy they desperately desire if Americans retain the class mobility they've enjoyed for generations. And education is the key to said class mobility. Cut off that escape route, and presto – we're one big Guatemala.

Our children deserve the same educational opportunities and the same options for class mobility that our seniors enjoyed in the days of the GI Bill, when you truly could be all you wanted to be. America deserves a government committed to education if it wants to remain a first-world country. It's time to vote one in.

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