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“When did you first learn about taxes?” I asked my 18-year-old nephew who had just been telling us about his organic chemistry class. If he could manage the structure of carbon atoms, surely he could he could learn a little tax policy.My 12-year old rolled her eyes at my latest attempt to insert tax policy into every conversation. “Mom, they don’t teach tax policy in school. Geez, I only know about it because of you.” And my nephew acknowledged that his first experience with tax came when he looked at his lifeguarding paycheck.
My daughter’s disdain notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, I was apoplectic. All students can learn more about tax. It’s part of being a contributing citizen.
Perhaps I was feeling a little emboldened since I had just heard about Tax Jazz, a tax literacy program for high school students created by Tulane University law professor Marjorie Kornhauser. Her one-week program teaches students about how taxes are designed, what is taxed, and how marginal and effective rates work. They learn that changing the method of taxation will change how much one taxpayer owes compared to another. Students then get a chance to debate the issues.
I agree—if I had my way a child would learn about tax the minute they learn about prices. (That’s pretty early: Try walking past a candy vending machine with a three-year-old who knows you have change in your purse.)
For a reality check, I asked a dozen educators what they thought, and heard back from six. Thanks go to an instructor of juniors and seniors at a Big Ten university’s school of social work, high school teachers in Wisconsin and Florida, a middle school teacher in Michigan, and an assistant principal at a dual-language elementary school in Colorado.
The assistant principal explained that government is taught starting in the third grade. It’s hard to imagine talking about tax policy before learning about government.
Still, she thought that basic tax issues could be incorporated in economics discussions for third or fourth graders. Many of those classes already use token-based economies that help teach about incentives and supply and demand.
Our own children participated in classroom economics in fourth and fifth grades. Students who behaved well or accomplished an established goal would earn “class-bucks” to spend on coveted items like a homework pass, or being first in line for recess.
What if a fourth-grade teacher charged a goods and service tax when a student redeemed her class-bucks? The revenues could pay for some shared service, like an extra recess on a beautiful day. Imagine the enlightened conversations! Or… frightful indignation.
Tax policy isn’t part of formal sixth-grade curriculum in Michigan, but the teacher I talked to does include it in his economics unit. He explains how taxes pay for government services such as fire and police protection, roads, and, of course, education. But he doesn’t have time to get into how much tax is paid by individuals or possible alternatives or modifications to our current system.
In one county in south Florida, high school seniors learn about tax policy if they elect to take a semester-long economics course. But the high school language arts teacher says that if she could, she’d spend an hour of instruction time each semester listing what taxes pay for. As it stands, she hands out textbooks saying, “Here you go, courtesy of Florida taxpayers!”
She believes we all should get this reminder. “Different tax philosophies (sales or income, progressive or flat) would really resonate with kids. Asking them which they think is best or fairest would be worthwhile.” But she thinks those debates are best left to high school juniors and seniors.
The Wisconsin high school teacher agrees. He thinks tax policy is too abstract for most students—until, like my lifeguard nephew, they get a job and a paycheck. Then, working students would be less likely to “look at their paycheck and wonder why their net pay is so much less than their gross pay,” and more likely to think about how government uses their taxes. This teacher laments the lack of tax literacy among students—and adults. After all, he said, “tax policy is a product of the social contract we all engage in.”
No doubt. The Big Ten university instructor says tax is absolutely central to teaching social policy. “We teach the ways in which government encourages certain behaviors and supports various programs through the frame of equity.” She’s currently teaching a class on homelessness and housing, and students have been learning about tax expenditures.
Sadly, she’s discovered a more fundamental problem. College students can’t grasp tax policy without a working knowledge of math.
For example, when she developed an exercise on the mortgage interest deduction, “I knew I'd have to explain what a deduction was... but… realized that I'd have to explain what a mortgage was, or how interest worked.”
Maybe learning about tax policy—and associated math and finance—really is harder than organic chemistry. But perhaps it’s not as hard as school systems giving teachers one week a year to teach basic tax starting in third grade.
In the meantime: I’ll keep talking (and writing) about tax, though I suspect my daughter will keep rolling her eyes. It’s the least I can do to support her teachers’ efforts.
The Tax Hound, publishing the first Wednesday of every month, helps make sense of tax policy for those outside the tax world and connects tax issues to everyday concerns.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.