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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The relative worth of children

Do you agree with the CCA Party’s view that children are parasites?
By Will Collette

In the campaign leading up to June 1st’s special town financial referendum, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) did the unexpected: they finally came fully out of the closet with their view that children and families with children are undesirable in Charlestown.

They’ve implied this before, but never as boldly as when they tried to claim that buying more open space is good for the taxpayers because it takes land out of circulation that would, in their opinion, almost certainly be used for family housing.

They took a mighty leap based on a string of assumptions that any undeveloped land that is not excluded from development will somehow always turn into high-density housing for families and that those families will invariably have school-age children who will forever be going to Chariho schools. 

These unwelcome rug-rats will burden the CCA Party voter base of well-to-do retirees and non-resident property owners with higher taxes.

This formulation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Even though Charlestown’s population has been dropping, especially among school-age children, with a corresponding drop in Chariho enrollment, and our population has been aging, we have still seen the CCA-controlled town government raise the property tax rate each and every year since 2008 when they took over. Even when we’ve had excessively large budget surpluses.

Since 2008, when Charlestown’s tax rate per $1,000 of valuation was $7.16, we’ve seen it climb to $10.11 this year. That’s a jump of 41.2% while the number of children in Charlestown and Chariho enrollment both dropped. How does the CCA Party explain that?

A recent Bryant University report on the economic impact of the drop in the population of children may explain why the CCA’s claims that children are bad for the local economy makes no sense.

You should know the Bryant research was funded in part by the CCA’s archenemies, the Rhode Island Builders Association. However, if you examine the report, I think you will be impressed with its use of data.

They looked at the statewide decline in the percentage of the population aged 16 and under to attempt to calculate how much that decline has cost the state’s economy in general and what impact it has had on the cost of education. The drop in the number of children between 2000 and 2013 was 35,417.

The CCA Party and the Bryant University study both accept a basic reality that every parent understands: it costs a lot of money to raise a child. In fact, there is a new on-line tool from the Economic Progress Institute that allows you to get pretty precise numbers for how much it costs to provide for a family in Rhode Island.

While the CCA assumes the cost of raising children is entirely negative, the Bryant study looks at the data in a more holistic way.

They estimate that Rhode Islanders spend $3.2 billion a year on child-rearing, “representing roughly 8% of Rhode Island’s Gross Domestic Product.”

That $3.2 billion in spending on children’s needs generates $4.2 billion in economic activity and is responsible for 45,793 full-time jobs in the state economy generating $1.7 billion in earnings. From this point of view, children are an economic driver, not a drain.

The Bryant paper argues that the drop in the number of children has not only cost the state in lost economic activity and jobs but actually raised the cost per student of schooling.

Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci has often tried to explain that dropping enrollment does not lead to lower costs simply because so much of the school system’s costs are the fixed cost of infrastructure. When enrollment drops, it only means the cost-per-pupil increases, worsened by lesser revenue received by the system in state aid.

Brand-new data just released by the National Education Association of RI shows that Chariho’s drop in enrollment was 14.8% over the past ten years, from 3,880 students in the 2004-5 school year to 3,305 this year. 575 fewer kids in school, but as the Bryant University study points out, fewer children don’t mean lower costs, but rather lower revenue and economic activity.

This economic reality not only debunks the CCA Party’s taxes-and-children argument but it is also a problem for people pushing charter schools. While charter schools may show some slightly lower per-pupil costs, largely due to cherry-picking students and paying lower wages and benefits to teachers, they add to the growing cost per student at Chariho by further decreasing their enrollment.

The main difference between the CCA Party policy and the research findings of the Bryant University team is that the Bryant paper looks at what spending on children puts back into the economy, while the CCA Party skips that part.

No one disagrees with the fact that raising children costs a lot of money. The question is whether it is worth it.

The CCA Party’s analysis only looks at how the cost of educating a child in the Chariho School District affects the property tax bills of Charlestown taxpayers, with particular concern for their political base – well-off retirees and non-resident property owners. Even for what it is, the CCA’s arithmetic is flawed since it is based on false assumptions about how new housing for families will automatically translate into pupils in public schools.

The CCA Party analysis completely overlooks the positive economic impact that children have on the economy such as the spending that supports more than 45,000 jobs. Read the Bryant report and see for yourself if the math and reasoning makes sense.

But here’s an often overlooked fact that adds a measure of concern for the whole state: our state cannot attract the kind of jobs and businesses we need to get out of our economic slump without an adequate and trained workforce. Losing children as we have means fewer new workers to take the place of those of us who have retired. An old and aging workforce is not attractive to new business.

Finally, there’s the cultural aspect of the debate over children. I understand where the CCA Party’s aversion to children comes from. Their political base is older (the average age of the CCA’s Steering Committee is 76). They might have had children once, but they are now grown and living elsewhere. Any grandkids they might have are only around for a short time.

To the CCA, Charlestown is a retirement community, even though two-thirds of Charlestown’s adults still work for a living, or at least try to.

The CCA Party also draws 60% of its campaign funding from non-residents who also have a self-interest in lowering the town’s contribution to the Chariho School District.

I also understand that much of the CCA’s environmental policy is controlled by Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and her husband, Cliff Vanover, who serves on the Zoning Board and the CCA Party Steering Committee.

They espouse a type of environmentalism I call “environmental nihilism” where people are viewed as the problem. In word and deed, they have pushed the CCA to promote radical Charlestown policies that treat human beings, and especially children, as an invasive species.

Maybe you’re OK with that, but I am not.