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School bus rides may not be free, as interim Tory leader reminds us, but we all benefit when we share the cost

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Interim Alberta PC Leader Ric McIver

"There's no such thing as a free ride to school on a bus."
— Progressive Conservative interim Leader Ric McIver

In the wake of Thursday's Throne Speech, wherein Premier Rachel Notley's NDP Government let it be known it's about to eliminate mandatory school fees for instructional materials and drop bus fees for students who have no other way to get to their designated school, the soon-to-depart leader of our former ruling Conservative dynasty objected sharply.

With his undeniably accurate observation that "there's no such thing as a free ride to school on a bus," interim Progressive Conservative Leader Ric McIver -- who will be replaced in two weeks, presumably by someone named Jason Kenney who sees the world much the same way -- illustrated there really is a difference between market fundamentalists and the rest of us.

So that bus ride for children whose parents would otherwise have to pay significant money to get them to school, McIver mansplained to the media, "that’s going to have to be paid for!"

"The government doesn't think Albertans are smart enough to figure that out," he huffed, almost certainly incorrectly, going on to accuse the government of trying to bribe the same taxpayers with their own money.

Since Notley scored an effective point against the late Jim Prentice, then the PC premier of Alberta, in the 2015 televised leaders' debate, the notion that "math is hard" has become a bit of a recurring theme in Alberta politics -- one that any one of us who speaks too quickly, regardless of our arithmetical skill, can fall victim to.

But isn't McIver proving here, in a more profound way, that math really is hard for true market fundamentalists who let their rigid neoliberal ideology get in the way of common sense?

Adult Albertans to a man and woman have surely all figured out that someone's going to pay for those bus rides. The disagreement is not about whether it costs money to operate buses full of school children, but whether that's a good way to spend our money.

Neoliberals like those that infest the leadership of both the PC Party and the Wildrose purport to believe in user fees -- that people who use services should pay for them, and generally the full cost. Taxes, they think, should be as low as conceivably possible and we should all be able to "chose" what services we "want."  

The rest of us -- most of mankind, in fact, when you really dig down -- believe the old expression that "many hands make light work."

Accordingly we believe that it makes sense for society to share the costs of essential activities that benefit individuals but also benefit all of society -- like education and health care, for two obvious examples.

Just because my kids aren't in grade school any more doesn't mean I should stop paying taxes to support primary education, and just because I live conveniently close to a good quality public high school, the one my kids attended, doesn't mean I shouldn't share the cost of getting other kids to school.

This is because all of us in society benefit from educating the next generation, not just an elite few.

The fact previous generations got that elementary fact is a big part of why Canada is a desirable country that can have the luxurious first-world problem of arguing about who should be allowed to immigrate here!

By way of another example, it costs about a billion and a half dollars to build a modern full-service hospital for a large metropolitan area.

Not very many of us could come up with that kind of money if we got seriously ill, obviously, which is why it makes sense to pool our resources through our taxes to build such facilities and save many lives.

And it's why the late premier Ralph Klein's idiotic decision in 2005 to give away precisely that amount in payments to every Albertan too small to purchase much more than a now-obsolete iPod was the perfect distillation of the kind of thinking McIver's commentary proves is still with us.

This is the simple concept the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when he famously observed, "taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

So-called conservatives like Klein, McIver and Kenney -- who nowadays aren't conservative at all, but espouse a deceptive and radical anti-tax ideology -- are quite inconsistent in the application of their market fundamentalist beliefs, of course.

While they believe families who are not particularly well off should have to pay thousands of dollars to get their kids to school if they happen to live at the wrong address, they are perfectly content to squander millions on high public subsidies to elite private schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars per child in tuition.

Like McIver, we also know that the estimated $100 million we Alberta taxpayers spend every year subsidizing private schools has to come from somewhere. We also disagree about whether it's a good use of our tax dollars.

Perhaps it's useful to compare these two sets of circumstances: As a society, do we derive more benefit from ensuring all students get to school at a reasonable cost by subsidizing bus transport, or do we benefit more by giving $20.6 million in subsidies over five years to a single school that charges more than $20,000 a year per child in tuition?

The arithmetic should be obvious, even if it's not to McIver, his party and the one it's thinking about joining up with. Readers will note that both the PCs and the Wildrosers are noisily in favour of tax subsidies for elite private schools. They call it "choice" -- that is, a choice you and your kids can't afford.

But pay for transportation for middle class or poor kids who don’t live near a school? They don't like that so much.

It's not bribing taxpayers with their own money to pay for the bus rides or the instructional fees. It fulfills an obvious social good.

Paying tax subsidies to expensive elite private schools, by contrast, sounds a lot like bribing someone else with our money!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga. 

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