Peak Voices: Independent preschools merit tax exemption given other nonprofits

Barry Fagin

Little things mean a lot. It's true in life, it's true in love, and it's true in law. Especially now in Colorado. Toward the end of the 1999 session, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB1339, designed to preserve the property tax exemption of nonprofit preschools. The measure is awaiting the governor's signature. As attention-getting issues go, this one isn't high on the list. For those of us with children in private schools, however, this bill's passage was vital. The integrity and high standards of key Colorado legislators have made a big difference in our lives.

This year, for reasons unknown, Colorado property tax assessors became interested in nonprofit schools that offered programs for pre-kindergarten children. Believing such institutions to be "day care centers," and not schools, they claimed they were private businesses and therefore subject to property tax. This came as a shock to every Montessori school in Colorado, which offers a coherent educational program for children at all stages of development, starting at age 3. The independent school my children attend also offers pre-kindergarten programs, as part of our educational philosophy of instilling an early love of learning in a values-oriented environment. The notion that we and other patrons of independent schools are paying for day care and not education is both ludicrous and insulting.

One would think that this bipartisan-sponsored bill would have breezed through both houses and quickly become law. Not so. According to Rep. Penn Pfiffner, R-Lakewood, who introduced HB1339, the bill was fought bitterly by the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest public education lobby. Why, one has to ask, was the CEA Goliath worrying about the David of Colorado's independent schools? Amendment 17 was defeated last fall, ensuring the security of CEA's monopoly for years to come. Colorado public schools receive billions of dollars in subsidies every year; Colorado independent schools get nothing. And yet, the CEA has the temerity to insist that private schools should pay more taxes. It simply defies belief.

The reality is that schools don't pay taxes, parents do. A tax hike for our school is a tax hike for our family. Taxes are our family's largest budget item. What comes in second? Education. (The mortgage is a close third). Sure, it's a sacrifice, but one we have no regrets in making. But had HB1339 failed, the money for our school to pay the state would have come from one of two places: funds currently spent on our children's education, or a tuition increase. For the large majority of us with children in private schools (who are already supporting two educational systems), it would have been a painful and undeserved blow. It's undeserved because independent schools are accomplishing what everyone acknowledges is a vital social good: the education of children in a caring, responsive environment.

Parents in an independent school are part of a community. We know each other's children, we accompany them on school overnights, we teach kindness and respect in the classroom, we take responsibility for our children and we expect everyone else to do the same. We discipline firmly but with love, we watch each class for signs of trouble, and we are actively engaged in the unbelievably complicated and difficult task known as parenting, in which we see our school as a partner. We are not some perfect, Lake Woebegon society where everyone is strong and good looking and all the children are above average. We're just committed to something we think is important, and we do all this for a lower per-student cost than a public school.

Maybe asking for help in this task is too presumptuous, but is it totally beyond the pale to ask that we not be hindered in the process? Apparently not to the Colorado Education Association. Fortunately, most of our elected officials saw the CEA's opposition for what it was: an attempt to make the lives of those who have the audacity to opt out of their system just a bit more difficult.

To all Colorado legislators, we say thanks for putting the public interest ahead of the public school union, and voting for HB1339. Our family really appreciates it.

Background: Fagin is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Golden and a professor of computer science.
Experience: He has two children at the Colorado Springs School.

Peak Voices is open to readers who have expertise or personal experience in an area of public policy. Articles should be limited to 600 words in length and can be sent to: Peak Voices, The Gazette, P.O. Box 1779, Colorado Springs, CO 80901.

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