Andrew Strewart: Tax The Wealthy Students!


The latest bid by Mayor Jorge Elorza to shore up revenues for a municipal treasury that is barely able to keep its head above the water by way of traffic cameras beside public schools has elicited a wide spectrum of public responses, mostly in the realm of outrage and annoyance.

For example, Providence teachers, who have been in contentious contract negotiations with the city, deduced that the placement within school zones had a clear message for the union membership while jesting that perhaps now Elorza would be able to use these newly-accrued revenues to give teachers a raise. South Providence residents recognized that it was yet another bid to extract monies from working class black and Latino populations.

I would suggest that Elorza, while mistaken in the grade level, was certainly on the right track with the idea of extraction of value from the education sector of his municipal economy. He should, however, instead levy a lodger’s tax, roughly equivalent to that levied on those staying in local hotels and motels, upon the out-of-state middle and upper class students that come to the Ocean State for education from a private institution like Brown, Providence College, or Johnson and Wales.

These are young people who have adequate financial means and who need to be adding more money to the municipal treasury to finance the basic services they already take advantage of, oftentimes for free and therefore at the expense of local taxpayers.

A Boarder’s Tax

The current austerity that we see implemented in Providence is caused by the fact that the private colleges, which are nonprofits, own some of the highest-grade real estate within city limits, taking away from the municipal treasury what would be some of the largest property tax payments.

The first point of argument for me is that the state already financially supports and subsidizes the actual buildings and facilities, including dormitories, by way of bonds and grants that these institutions utilize during construction. The supposition that “private” colleges are entirely autonomous from the public coffers is simply a verbal trick that masks a textbook example of corporate welfare at the expense of the poor.

Furthermore, these buildings serve a very clear political purpose. As Brown and JWU expand their campuses into neighborhoods such as Upper South Providence, the West End, and the Jewelry District, they gentrify Black and Brown neighborhoods and break up progressive voting blocs. White students that participate in this gentrification are shown by sociological studies like those by Michael C. Dawson at the University of Chicago to be helping fragment a voting bloc that corresponds according to every metric with the most Left-leaning demographic in the public. Black and Latino voters support everything from universal healthcare to abortion rights to progressive tax codes and even wealth redistribution and land reform alongside obvious policies like Affirmative Action, judicial reform, and a strong welfare state.

By taxing private school students, the communities of color would be able to re-assert a level of power that the colleges and universities unfairly maintain a monopoly upon. Rather than making the Mayor of Providence go to beg for higher PILOT payments from these institutions, he instead could assert a position of power his office by right is worthy of and which the institution presidents are not.

Implement The Tax

The second point of argument is a response to those who would plead implementing such a tax would chase away students. What would be so wrong with this? It is not exactly a huge leap to point out how out-of-state students only stay in the state for their term in school before moving on to greener pastures in another state.

Rhode Island’s unemployment rate as compared to our neighbors in New England and nationwide is substantial enough to make people want to leave as soon as possible. By contrast, in-state students with families and connections to the local economy would remain invested for the long run in Rhode Island. Furthermore, the simple truth is that these out-of-state students oftentimes end up participating in efforts within their colleges and universities that do significant harm to the local social safety net.

In this matter, consider education. In the past decade, Brown has developed a quickie Masters programs that grants a teaching license to participants. While it is understandable that there is a need for more public school teachers, Masters in the Art of Teaching (MAT) programs are not as rigorous as those Education degree programs offered by URI or RIC, our state’s historic teacher training and certification college.

In this regard, these programs de-professionalize the educational vocation, part of a long-term plan to reduce salaries and benefit packages for teachers. Furthermore, private school students are known for their participation in Teach for America, an Americorps program that is known for supplying scab laborers. (It also bears mentioning here that Andrew Moffit, spouse of our current Governor, is both a charter school industrial player and has been an adjunct professor at Brown, demonstrative of a definite political orientation and attitude towards public education within the University’s Education Department.)

Assert Our Rights

We as taxpayers across the state have paid close to a century’s worth of taxes into our public education system as it now exists. The agenda that Brown has for our public domain, the property that Rhode Island residents own and finance, is diametrically opposed to the interests of local taxpayers. We need to begin to assert our rights in these matters and build towards the beloved community, something the private education system in this state is fundamentally opposed to.

Third is the matter of this idea’s viability. Putting it simply, private school students have always been an annoyance and nuisance in my book. They come from their high perches on College Hill with a smug air of superiority with all these amazing ideas that will help save we poor dumb flat-landers from…ourselves.

Simultaneous with this social justice warrior attitude, they refuse to recognize the very educational institutions they patronize are the root cause of most of the injustices in our state. Brown students get riled up about identity politics but have never seriously advocated that the school’s endowment be dissolved so to finance reparations for slavery.

They harp on about reactionary attitudes in the wider state population while failing to understand that austerity is always the major engine of chauvinism, from Weimar Germany to Jimmy Carter to today in the Eurozone and America. As a famous democratic socialist once said, one step forward and two steps back. In other words, while the students and institutional governing bodies would oppose this idea, I think every Rhode Islander would love it!

There are many nuances to this proposal that I recognize would need to be smoothed out. What about scholarship students, those who get the maximum from Pell grants and FASFA, or low-income minority students? I readily submit that such should be exempted. I furthermore would suggest the tax be equivalent to the amount of money the city currently is extracting from traffic camera tickets, partially due to reasonability and partially because such a tax can always be increased at a later date.

But the legacy students, trust fund babies, and frat boys who come to Providence and exist in a fashion that contributes the absolute minimum to the city should start opening their wallets now as we see the Mayor looking for more funding.

Russell Moore
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